Andrew Robinson (@ADrobinson3)
HERSHEY – Deja Evans may want to ask her future coaches at Albany about scheduling a game at the Giant Center.
The Archbishop Wood senior has played two games at the big venue in Hershey and turned in a dominant effort in each of them. Last year, it was a state title game record for rebounds while this year saw the 6-foot-2 forward come out determined to own the game and lead her team to a third straight state title.
Evans ended her career in style, putting together one last show with running mate Ava Renninger as the Vikings topped South Fayette 61-54 in a great PIAA 5A final.
"I wanted to end here," Evans said. "This was our focal point the whole season getting to the state championship. My teammates helped me a lot, they boosted my confidence a lot throughout the season and kept feeding me the ball."
The Archbishop Wood girls basketball team poses with the PIAA plaque after Saturday's state title game. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Evans got back to familiar ground, posting her ninth double-double in 10 state games for Wood with 17 points and 12 rebounds in a battle of bigs against South Fayette’s 6-foot-3, Elon-bound senior Ava Leroux. While Evans had a healthy amount of respect for the South Fayette post, who finished with 10 points and eight boards, she knew she had an advantage with her quickness.
Coming out and banking in a three on her first shot didn’t hurt either, with Evans hitting a pair of long balls in an eight-point opening stanza with her teammates similarly on fire. Wood hit four of the six shots it took behind the arc, Renninger sliced inside for eight of her own and the Vikings were up 22-12 eight minutes in.
“Deja was Deja. We felt she had a speed advantage where she could attack around Leroux and she was able to capitalize a couple of times,” Wood coach Mike McDonald said. “Banking one in, makes you feel good, making the second, that helps because now you feel like you have to come out on her and she’s pretty good putting it on the floor and getting to the rim.
“She’s been outstanding, Albany’s got a great one coming.”
Behind every good big, there’s usually a good guard getting them the ball. There’s been nobody better at getting Evans the rock this year than Renninger, the 5-foot-6 junior and Evans bonding last year as first-year arrivals in Wood’s program and developing an instant chemistry.
The duo shared a nice moment postgame, doing one of their personal handshakes in the medal line. Renninger had one of the plays of the game in the third quarter, attacking the rim and threading a pass between two South Fayette players to hit Evans for the layup and a foul.
“It was a difficult pass, I had to put it out there to see if she’d go get it and it could have gone the best way or the worst way so I’m lucky it went the best way,” Renninger said. “Deja down low took away their big and I knew their smaller guard I'd be able to handle because of my strength so I knew to attack. It would either bring the big or she'd stay with Deja, so it would get me or Deja open and I planned to attack down low and finish."
Archbishop Wood junior Ava Renninger drives to the hoop on Saturday. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Renninger said she was disappointed to lose Evans as a teammate and the feeling was mutual.
"Ava is a phenomenal passer and point guard who can get to the basket whenever she wants to," Evans said. "We built that chemistry in practice but we have a connection off the court too. We're really good friends."
Wood’s scorching offense was more than just a hot start. The Vikings were 15-of-21 at halftime and finished the game 22-of-35 from the floor, a pretty remarkable number in general for a high school team but amplified by the big gym in Hershey that usually decreases a team's shooting numbers.
Just as important was the team’s defense. McDonald noted his team did give up 54 points, but considering most of those were coming from secondary options, it’s not like Wood wasn’t getting the things it wanted to happen when South Fayette had the ball to happen.
When a team has a player like Maddie Webber, the focus is always going to be on slowing them down first and that’s what the Vikings wanted to do.
"It wasn't a hesitation, we knew Delaney Finnegan was going to be on her and as much as we could keep the ball out of her hands, do it," McDonald said. "Once she did get it, we tried to run double teams at her and make someone else beats. They scored 54 points, they capitalized on a lot of areas but it wasn't (Webber) who dominated us and that's what we wanted, we didn't want her to go off for 25 or 30 points."
Finnegan put a lot of effort into her last game, not that it was much different than any other game, but the senior was running circles on defense trying to keep in step with Webber. The future Villanova Wildcat had a little bit working early, hitting a step-back three in the opening minutes and drawing an and-one later in the third but overall it was tough going on the offensive end.
Webber finished with 11, not hitting the mark until she sank a three in the final seconds but shot just 4-of-12 from the field. Watching film to prepare, Finnegan said the biggest thing that stood out was how Webber “could do everything” and her quick catch-and-shoot ability.
The Archbishop Wood girls basketball team celebrates its PIAA 5A championship win over South Fayette on Saturday. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Finnegan denied the ball well and in the instances Webber was able to catch it, the Vikings often threw an extra defender at her right away to force her to give it up and work that much harder to try and get it back again.
"What keeps me going is knowing I have a job to do," Finnegan said. "I know that's my role and what I have to do to close out the game. Going into the game, I have an assignment and that's all it is."
Renniger was fantastic offensively, not taking a shot outside of 18 feet and hitting 9-of-11 attempts for a game-high 21 points. She also added three assists, including a nice feed to Emily Knouse for a three in the third quarter, part of Wood’s 7-of-14 effort from long range.
Fresh off a terrific state semifinal, the junior again rose to the moment in a big game, something Wood will need her to do more next year as a core returning player.
“I get a little nervous until the tip, then I lock in and zone out from everything. I know I can be the player they can go to and I’m going to be ready on the biggest stage and biggest games,” Renninger said. “That’s what I love. I love coming out on the court every night no matter the game.”
Archbishop Wood senior Deja Evans drives to the basket Saturday. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
There’s no formula to winning a state title, much less three in a row and by nature, high school teams change a lot year to year. This year’s Wood team wasn’t like the previous two but any missing “name” player was made up for with depth, balance and skill.
The fact that the 2023 seniors went 17-0 in PIAA playoff games over their four years, that helped too. This title was theirs, the team swarming injured captain Allie Fleming when she got her medal telling of their bond.
“It was huge for us, we’ve grown together so much,” Finnegan said. “We all have each other’s backs, we all motivate each other and we’re all so close.
“Everybody can bring something to the table, we don’t have one person who does it all or is our player, it allows us to have a lot of chemistry on the court.”
McDonald also had a special relationship with this team. Many of the players attended his wedding this past fall and he coached four of them - Fleming, Kara Meredith, Campbell McCloskey and Lauren Tretter - in AAU ball.
“A lot of seniors that stuck together,” McDonald said. “Some kids played less minutes than they would have liked and there wasn’t an inkling of a bad attitude. They wanted it for each other, they put each other first. It’s a tremendous group and I said it was like a vacation this season with how easy it was to coach them.
“A positive, uplifting group. They loved each other and that made it special.”
Meredith, who had 13 points in her last Wood game with a team-high three made three-point shots, couldn’t have asked for anything more.
“We played hard all game and never fully let up, even when they started to come back in the last quarter,” Meredith said. “I’m just so happy and proud to leave Wood with a state title and on a high with my best friends.”
Archbishop Wood: 22 | 15 | 11 | 13 || 61
South Fayette: 12 | 12 | 11 | 19 || 54
AW: Ava Renninger 21, Deja Evans 17, Kara Meredith 13, Emily Knouse 8, Lauren Tretter 2
SF: Ava Leroux 10, Rachel Black 4, Erica Hall 17, Maddie Webber 11, Ryan Oldaker 9 Julianna Rossi 1, Juliette Leroux 2.
Tag(s): Home High School Andrew Robinson Girls HS Catholic League (G) Archbishop Wood