BY JEFF FALK
LEBANON – If you don’t look closely enough at the faces, this current crop of Cedars looks a lot like Lebanon High boys’ basketball teams of the past. They possess a certain feel for the game, they’re athletic, tough, quick – and just a little bit raw.
But not only are these Cedars eager to live up to expectations created by the program’s glorious past, they’re also eager to make a name for themselves.
During Friday night’s opening round of their own tip-off tournament, the Cedars represented their program and themselves very well, downing Lancaster Mennonite 63-56. After relinquishing most of a double-digit lead midway through the fourth quarter, Lebanon took over the paint down the stretch.
With win, Lebanon, which graduated some key pieces from a 2013-14 squad that claimed a Lancaster-Lebanon Section Two title and advanced to the league championship game, moved into Saturday’s championship game of the tournament opposite Elco. The opening tip is set for 7:30 p.m.
“It’s probably the most athletic team we’ve had since I’ve been here,” said Lebanon head coach Tim Speraw. “Everybody can get up and down the floor. Our post players aren’t big, but they can move, they can spring and they’re hard to guard.
“We always talk about the history of the program,” added Speraw. “We’ll point up to the banners in the gym and talk about different teams. For the most part, every kid is a Lebanon kid. They get it, and they know what they’re dealing with. They’ve been looking up to Lebanon players all their lives, and now they’re them.”
After being forced to the bench by two fouls in the game’s opening 2:11, Lebanon senior forward Jahlil Ortiz tallied 16 of his team-high 18 points in the second half – including a steal and breakaway dunk during a key run late in the third quarter. Junior Allen Escoto complemented Ortiz up front with 15 points of his own.
Cedar junior DeVaughn Rodriguez collected a dozen points, nine of which came on three huge second-quarter three-pointers. And junior point Matty Lopez provided a calming influence with his steady guard play.
Save for a couple of defensive lapses, some offensive rust in the half court and 13-of-28 shooting from the foul stripe, Lebanon’s performance was fairly solid for a season opener.
“The thing I like about this team is anybody, on any given night, can step up and be the catalyst for us,” said Speraw. “In the fourth quarter, Jahlil stated getting his game going, and we jumped on his shoulders.
“We’ll see how good we can be,” Speraw added. “Right now, we’re still figuring some things out, and still figuring some things out about ourselves. We lost a lot of minutes from last year. But we’re deep.”
After the Blazers had pulled to within 52-49 with three minutes to play, J. Ortiz stepped on the gas again. He notched the game’s next five points – on a put back, a spin in the lane and a charity toss.
And when Rodriguez followed with a free throw and Escoto converted a lay-up, Lebanon was the proud owners of an 8-0 burst, a 60-49 lead and Win Number One.
“They (the Blazers) got back in it because we weren’t getting back (on defense),” said Speraw. “We had to settle down. Then we started getting the ball in the right spots.
“I thought we played well in spurts,” continued Speraw. “But we played pretty bad in spurts as well.”
After nursing a one-point halftime edge, Lebanon was at its best during a third quarter in which six different players scored and it threatened to blow its guests out of the gym. The Cedars hit Lancaster Mennonite with a 10-3 run over the final 2:48 of the period and assumed a 45-33 lead courtesy of an inside move from sophomore Shaquell Ortiz.
But the Blazers outscored Lebanon 16-7 over the initial five minutes of the final stanza.
“We’re athletic,” said Speraw. “We’re getting in passing lanes. We went into a zone, and it seemed like it worked, so we just stayed in it.
“I think we learned a lot about who we are,” Speraw continued. “I thought our three seniors (J. Ortiz, Luke Eisenhour and Noah Sanders) did a great job of demanding the ball in pressure situations. When we really needed to, we handled the pressure.”
The Cedars struggled a bit at the end of the first quarter, but turned it around in the second thanks to the shooting of Rodriguez. Trailing by six, Lebanon held Lancaster Mennonite to a mere four points in the stanza, and grabbed a 22-19 edge on a Rodriguez trey, 3:48 before the break.
“We need to work on our half court offense,” conceded Speraw. “For the most part, it was a learning experience. We’ll address it and adjust some stuff.”
A Sanders’ three-pointer with 3:45 of the first quarter remaining staked Lebanon to an 11-9 edge. But that would prove to be the last points the Cedars would score in a period which ended with the Blazers ahead 17-11.
“They’re tough,” said Speraw of the Raiders. “I told Brad (Elco head coach, Conners) over summer and the fall that I thought his group looked really good. (Junior forward) Colton Lawrence is hard to handle. They’re going to be a tough match-up. We’ll see.”