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PIAA Class 4A: Evans' big night lifts Archbishop Wood to state championship

03/24/2022, 11:15pm EDT
By Andrew Robinson

Andrew Robinson (@ADRobinson3)

HERSHEY — Deja Evans was trying to keep her game face on.

The Archbishop Wood forward was preparing for the opening tip of the PIAA 4A title game against Lansdale Catholic while Crusaders junior Gabby Casey extended a handshake. Evans and Casey are AAU teammates and actually good friends, so as much as she wanted to stay stone-faced, Evans accepted the offer.

All formalities were off after that, however.

Deja Evans (above) set a new PIAA championship record with 20 rebounds as Wood defended its title. (Photo: Andrew Robinson/CoBL)

"It was kind of like, I can't be your friend on the court but as soon as we get off the court, we're good," Evans said.

Evans was the force inside, scoring 15 points and pulling down a PIAA title-game-record 20 rebounds for her fifth straight double-double of the state playoffs as Wood stood tall against a Crusaders team with a lot of heart to repeat as Class 4A champions, 57-45 on Thursday at Hershey's Giant Center.

"It means a lot to me," Evans said. "It means I was able to create more possessions for my team, which we needed. (LC) was able to make a lot of shots, so me being strong on the glass created more possessions for us."

Lansdale Catholic coach Eric Gidney made no bones about it, his team was at a size disadvantage and was probably going to lose the rebounding battle. What the Crusaders couldn't do if they wanted a chance to win their first state title was get dominated on the glass.

Thanks to Evans, who nearly matched LC's 23 rebounds by herself, that's exactly what happened as Wood took the board war 42-23 on the night. The 6-foot-2 post got off to a slow start offensively but by the end of the night, she was cleaning up on both ends, scoring on offense and deterring the Crusaders on the other.

"We felt our height advantage should be a factor," Wood coach Mike McDonald said. "In some cases, missing shots was almost the same as passing it to Deja. Bri (Bowen) was apologizing for missing a layup and I said that was exactly what we wanted, she attacked, got Deja's girl off of her and now it's a free uncontested layup for Deja. You might as well throw an alley-oop to her, it's the same difference."

Evans came over to the Vikings after two years at Plymouth Whitemarsh but didn't need long to incorporate herself into Wood's system. She also added a new element to the team's makeup on both ends of the floor and chalked up her quick transition to trusting her teammates and using them as a resource.

It also helped she had a familiar face as a teammate in Delaney Finnegan, who plays on the same Philly Belles squad as Evans and Casey. All three juniors would be the center of another strong Wood defensive effort, with Finnegan the primary cover on Casey with Evans the last line of defense to keep the acrobatic LC forward away from the rim.

"Gabby is a really good driver, shooter and all of that," Evans said. "We had to find ways to cut off her offense tonight."

Aside from the familiarity of playing together, Finnegan was the perfect choice for Wood to stick on Casey. The LC forward is a high-energy player who is relentless attacking the rim and McDonald knew Finnegan had the drive to match it.

"She has a great motor and great instincts and a lot of it is just on her and she's done it all year against all kinds of kids," McDonald said. "If you want to go all day, she'll go all day and then some. She plays hard the entire time and she's a kid that every time she steps off the floor, she looks like she just came out of a dogfight or like she was wrestling somebody but that's the way she shows up to practice."

Archbishop Wood celebrates their 2022 PIAA Class 4A championship. (Photo: Andrew Robinson/CoBL)

Bowen, who was also superb on defense on top of scoring 14 points, said the plan was to stay on the LC players' strong hands while also keeping a shadow on their better perimeter shooters. Wood took a little bit of a gamble having Evans play off her girl to protect the lane, which the Crusaders took advantage of with their hot-shooting start but it proved the right move as the game played out.

Finnegan said her history with Casey was an advantage in preparation, but as far as the game, it was still a difficult task.

"She's really versatile so I was focused on just staying between her and the basket," Finnegan said. "I had to deny the drive at all times and stay ready for what she had coming next, if she wanted to get to the basket or she's also good at step-backs. I knew I just had to always be focused for what she had."

Casey finished with 17, tying Wood's Ryanne Allen for the game high, and showed plenty of heart trying to attack the basket despite all the resistance in her way. It was a shared effort across the board from the Crusaders, who more than proved how far they had come since their lopsided regular-season loss to the Vikings.

"They forced us to take bad shots and rushed our shots," Casey said. "They have so much size, it's hard. If Deja opens up her arms, her wingspan is so big. We were ready for it, but I think it also still caught us off guard, they were up in our face and playing really good defense."

Nine of Evans' 20 boards came on the offensive end and nobody was happier for Evans than the seniors in Bowen, Allen and Shannon Morgan. All three saw the forward's talent and wanted to make sure Evans knew they needed her to go where they wanted this winter.

"It's all her confidence, once she got settled and used to playing with us and understood the system, it all came together," Allen said. "We just kept telling her 'you're good' and she was huge for us this season."

Amazingly, Thursday wasn't even Evans' highest rebound total of the season as McDonald said the team had her for a 23-rebound effort earlier in the campaign. The Wood coach, who collected his fourth state championship (2016, 17, 21, 22) since taking over the program, attributed Evans' ability to fit in so quickly to her attitude and her ability.

"She's a special player, she's just scratching the surface really," McDonald said. "She just works, she's an unselfish kid, she's a very nice kid and an intelligent kid. She's a humble person and was just happy to be a part of our team and she's a great teammate.

"That's part of it, her teammates love her. You  welcome a person like that with open arms, she's coach-able, pays attention in practice and let's be honest, if she doesn't know what she's doing, she can make up for it with size and athleticism."

Wood's defense came up with several strong stretches, none bigger than the four-minute drought it put LC in after the Crusaders' Nadia Yemola buried a three for a 38-37 lead with 5:31 left in the game. Evans got a put-back to give Wood the lead back for good, Morgan scored off a fake handoff into a drive and Finnegan had two tough baskets as the Vikings went on a 9-0 run before LC got another point.

"We just had to stay composed and play really good defense," Evans said. "Everyone really stepped up."

Casey said the loss will just be motivation for her team - which returns four starters - even if it comes with added expectations and the loss of any surprise factor LC had this year coming off a 2-11 season. The junior also knows it falls on her and Olivia Boccella - the sophomore scoring 11 for the Crusaders - to pick up the leadership void left by graduating seniors Lauren Edwards and Erin Clark.

"I think it starts with following their dedication," Casey said. "They were always in the gym and that really motivates everyone to want to be like them. It's not going to be the same, but we're all really thankful for them and what they meant to LC."

McDonald lauded his players, especially the three seniors, for their efforts this year. A program with Wood's history can get a label of making things look easy but as the Vikings coach noted, every player still has schoolwork, a life outside basketball, other obligations and on the court, a lot of sacrifice required that equates to winning.

So when LC took a lead in the fourth, he wasn't going to call a timeout.

"You're talking about kids who have been through this and if you want to be a great basketball player, a one-point game, that's nothing to you," McDonald said. "These kids, they're just tough. They're not coming down, hitting a between-the-legs  step-back or anything, they're attacking the basket and taking what the defense is giving them."

It wasn't easy, mostly because Lansdale Catholic refused to let it be easy but that also made the final result feel all that much more rewarding.

"It's an unbelievable feeling to go out on a high note and end our careers at Wood with a state championship," Allen said. "There's really nothing better than this."

By Quarter
Archbishop Wood:  7   |  14  |  14  |  12  ||  57
Lansdale Catholic: 12  |  10  |   7   |  16  ||  45

Archbishop Wood: Ryanne Allen 17, Deja Evans 15, Bri Bowen 14, Shannon Morgan 4, Delaney Finnegan 4, Emily Knouse 2, Ava Renninger 1

Lansdale Catholic: Gabby Casey 17, Olivia Boccella 11, Lauren Edwards 8, Saniyah Littlejohn 4, Nadia Yemola 3, Sam McHugh 2

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