VANDERGRIFT — Imani Christian boasts a senior-less roster with two starters at 6-foot-8 or taller.
Last year’s quarterfinalist added two starters before this year on controversial transfers in sophomore guards Dame Givner and R.J. Sledge, who moved to the program from Obama Academy and last year’s state champion Bishop Canevin respectively.
The imposing and talented lineup that also features 6-foot-11 sophomore Aller Maluk and 6-foot-8 junior Virgil Hall will be a tough force to stop during the playoffs and beyond this year.
Tuesday night at Kiski Area High School, the Union Knights saw first-hand Imani’s personnel in a season-ending 80-48 loss.
Givner scored a game-high 24 points, nailing four 3-pointers, and Hall turned in 19 points and 11 rebounds. Maluk, saddled with some foul trouble, finished with 13 points and eight rebounds and a handful of blocked shots.
The Knights never led as the Saints started the game with an 11-0 lead. Perhaps head coach Eric Mortimer’s squad was playing with some house money coming off the program’s first state playoff win in 49 years last Friday against Turkeyfoot Valley, but Mortimer maintained they were out for more than just showing up.
“Our goal was to win and from what we saw, we thought we could compete with them,” said Mortimer, whose team finished 15-13. “They were a little bit quicker in person. They move the ball well and shoot it well. They just outplayed us. They’re good and they might be the state champs.”
Hall and Maluk each had two dunks, all of them coming in the second half as the Saints led 23-9 after the first quarter, and 43-25 at halftime. Eventually, the Saints took over physically even more after halftime and outscored the Knights 27-12 in the third quarter, pushing the PIAA Mercy Rule running clock into motion at 66-35 at the 1:15 mark.
Imani’s lead was as large as 37 points twice in the fourth quarter.
Union got 22 points from Payton Johnston while Dawson Camper finished with 10 points and seven rebounds. The Knights were out-rebounded 47-28 and only lost the turnover battle by a small margin of 15-13. The Saints limited the Knights to 31 percent shooting (17-for-55) while finishing at 50 percent (32-for-64) themselves.
“I’m very proud of this team. They never quit or fighting, except that one strip of seven games that we lost, other than that, they did a wonderful job for me,” Mortimer said of his Knights.
Avery Wesley also reached double figures for Imani with 12 points.
Next up for Imani (20-6) is District 10 champion Farrell in the quarterfinals Friday at a site and time to be announced.
For Union, the season ends with a streak ended. With last Friday’s state playoff-opening 64-28 rout of District 5’s third-place finisher Turkeyfoot Valley, the Knights won their first playoff game since a state semifinal win over Union City (73-59) way back in 1974.
The Knights lost 63-48 in the final to Holy Ghost Prep. The Turkeyfoot Valley win ended a nine-game state playoff losing streak since 1974.
“It was very important for Union to get back there finally. That’s the last time to win a state game and I’m looking forward to next year and the same thing,” said Mortimer, who was just two years out of school back in 1974.
After the Rams climbed to within 6-5 to start the game on Don Stemmerich Court in Rimersburg, the Knights embarked on a 14-0 run that finished with Fleming’s basket at the 3:30 mark of the first quarter.
Turkeyfoot Valley cut it back to 24-13, but the Knights responded with an 8-0 run to make it 32-13. Zander Laughlin’s 3-pointer pushed it to 20 at 37-17 with 3:43 left in the first half. Laughlin drilled another 3-pointer just before halftime to give the Knights a comfortable 46-18 lead.
The Mercy Rule running clock went into motion on Johnston’s layup that made it 52-22 at the 5:45 mark of the third quarter.
Johnston and Laughlin scored 22 and 20 points apiece. Fleming, Camper and Hayden Smith each scored six points.