BY JEFF FALK
PHOTOS BY LORI MESSERSMITH
PLYMOUTH MEETING – Fear none. Respect all.
It’s never been about the opponent for the Lebanon girls’ basketball team. The Cedars have always just concerned themselves with what they do, do it the best they can and not worry about whether or not it’s good enough.
On Friday night at Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School, in the opening round of the PIAA Class AAAA playoffs, Lebanon High stared down the consensus best team in the state – North Penn – and didn’t blink, before falling 52-41 in a loss that ended its rewarding season. The Cedars brushed off a slow start, pushed powerful North Penn to the brink, but just didn’t have enough to get over the top.
With the defeat, the Cedars ended their year at 21-8. Along the way, Lebanon High captured a Lancaster-Lebanon Section Two championship and qualified for states by finishing seventh in the District Three Class AAAA tournament.
North Penn, the District One champions and the top-ranked Class AAAA squad in Pennsylvania, will carry a 24-3 overall mark into the next round of the PIAA playoffs.
“There’s no team in the country that I’d be more proud to coach,” said Lebanon head coach Ben Brewer of his charges. “I don’t think anyone outside this locker room thought in November that we’d be here now. We went toe-to-toe with the best team in the state, and the kids didn’t back down. I’m very proud of them.
“I thought it was one of the best weeks of practice we had this season,” Brewer continued. “If possible, we came together even more. I thought we had four fantastic practices. We had to share the gym and there were distractions, but they (his players) were 110 percent focused on tonight.”
On the strength of a pair of free throws from senior Lauren Chambers, the Cedars were only down 35-32 with 1:19 remaining in the third period. But it was at that point that the Maidens asserted themselves.
North Penn tallied the final six points of the quarter to take a nine-point cushion into the fourth. Lebanon stayed close with a drive from Brittany Ulrich early, but then managed only four points over the next five minutes, as the Maidens were opening their advantage to 52-38.
“I thought we played pretty darn well,” said Brewer. “All we needed to do was knock down shots, play defense and box out. After making the adjustment, I didn’t think we turned the ball over. We shot well, but they shot well too.
“I had a weird confidence about tonight,” added Brewer. “I knew we’d be in the game. We had to make shots. They had to miss shots and we had to rebound their misses. But hey hurt us on the offensive boards. We can’t spot a team like that nine points.”
The nine points that the Cedars spotted North Penn were the first nine.
Perhaps a bit tight, Lebanon didn’t score for the opening 4:26 of the contest, and to complicate matters catalyst Ulrich was forced to the bench by two quick fouls. But the Cedars found their bearings, as Chambers nailed a couple of charity tosses and Shaela Shellehamer drained a trey to pull their side to within four.
“Part of that is getting adjusted to what you’re about to see,” said Brewer of the talented Maidens. “Until you see how wide they are, how long they are and how fast they are. It took a little time to adjust. Once we did, we played with them. I didn’t see nerves. It was just the adjustment period.”
After facing a double-digit deficit in the second quarter, Lebanon got a drive from Ulrich, a put back by Rakow and a lay-in from Chambers to move to within 16-12. Then 2:32 before the break, Shellehamer made it an 18-14 game with a successful back-door cut.
“That group has the greatest heart in the world,” said Brewer, motioning towards his locker room. “They represent their school, their town, their community so well. But it would’ve taken a great effort to beat them (the Maidens).”
Early in the third quarter, the Cedars turned to the three-ball to make another run at North Penn. A pair of treys from Alicia Haitos, one by Rakow and another from Chambers – all within three minutes of each other – trimmed North Penn’s lead to 30-28, with 3:23 of the period left to play.
“They don’t have four or five Division One players like Wilson,” said Brewer of the Maidens. “And they don’t have a 6-1 point guard like Cumberland Valley. What they do have is an extremely smart, disciplined team. They can shoot the ball. They can defend. And they’re well-coached. But other than the 9-0 start, that was the best we played all year.”
Lebanon matched the hot shooting Maidens three-pointer for three-pointer, but North Penn outscored the Cedars 14-9 at the free throw line. Chambers fittingly led Lebanon’s balanced attack with 11 points.
“It’s done,” said Brewer. “To me, it was a very successful season. Now it’s time to go back to work and work on improving the program for next year. I grew up with this group (four graduating seniors). This was my core group. We butted heads sometimes. We didn’t always agree, but they never disrespected anyone. That’s a group of kids who give their all every night.”