COVID-19 is reason for home games in PIAA basketball tournament; other state playoff notes

MIKE WHITE
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
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The COVID-19 pandemic is still having an effect on the state high school basketball playoffs. But for half of the teams in the tournament, that's a good thing because it means a home game in the first round.

The PIAA tournaments for boys and girls begin Tuesday night around the state, and teams that are on the top of the bracket for a game will play at home in first-round contests, provided their gym is suitable and big enough to play host to a game.

This is the first time the PIAA has given teams home games in the first round. Usually, all games are played at neutral sites. Actually, the PIAA played home games through the semifinals last year because of COVID-19. But there was a shortened tournament where only district champions qualified.

The tournaments are back to their normal sizes this year, with 32 teams in every classification — boys and girls. Some teams will have to travel a few hours Tuesday or Wednesday to play games at the home site of an opponent. But the PIAA made the decision in January that teams on the top of the bracket in a game will play at home.

"We had to give people enough notice that we were going to do this. We couldn't tell them just this week," PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi said. "At the time we made the decision in January, (COVID-19) cases weren't dropping like they are now. They were on the rise. People were hesitant to open up their school to maybe four teams from other schools to play a doubleheader. We went with this idea to sort of assist schools and that schools wouldn't have too much of a concern."

All games from the second round on will be at neutral sites. A team must win five games to capture a PIAA title. The championship games are March 24-26 in Hershey.

Revised schedule: The start of the PIAA playoffs also is drastically different this year.

For decades, district championships were concluded on a Saturday and the PIAA tournaments didn't start until the following Friday. Now, the PIAA first round is Tuesday and Wednesday, only a few days after the district championships. Teams have to bounce back quickly, possibly after a loss in a district championship. District champions don't have long to celebrate before getting back to business.

But the PIAA had its reasons for the schedule change. Since the PIAA went to six classifications in the 2016-17 season, the semifinals have been on a Monday and Tuesday and the title games Thursday through Saturday.

Some teams were driving 4 hours or more to semifinal games. With the new schedule this year, the semifinals are all Friday and Saturday, March 18-19. The title games don't start until five days later. Some teams will have a week off between the semifinals and final.

"The semifinals are supposedly our best teams and our best games, and sometimes they involved a lot of travel on a Monday and Tuesday," Lombardi said. "First, maybe these semifinal games can be highlighted more on a weekend and playing the weekend before will give teams that advance to championship games a couple extra days. We had teams that traveled and played on Monday and the turnaround to then play again Thursday was difficult."

Ones to watch: The PIAA girls Class 4A tournament features one of the top players in the country.

Dunmore's 6-foot-4 Ciera Toomey is ranked the No. 4 junior in the country by ESPN.com and has Connecticut and Maryland on her final list of eight colleges. Toomey has helped Dunmore to a 23-1 record.

In the Class 5A boys tournament, Imhotep Charter of Philadelphia has 6-6 guard-forward Justin Edwards, who is ranked the No. 8 junior in the country by Rivals.com.