BY JEFF FALK
HARRISBURG – Throughout the regular season, the Lebanon boys’ basketball team flashed glimpses of its true potential, provided peaks of what it could be.
The Cedars picked the perfect time to play their best game of the season.
On Wednesday night at Harrisburg High School’s Kimber Gymansium, in the opening round of the District Three Class AAAA postseason, Lebanon rose to the occasion and registered its most important win of the year, a 65-56 upset of Harrisburg’s Cougars. The Cedars did it by putting together 32 minutes of intense basketball, by coming in with a confident approach, by executing a snug 2-3 zone defense and through a career night from junior guard Dante Vargas.
Following a nervous start, Lebanon gained control of the result late in the second period. Then, in the face of a number Harrisburg storms in the second half, the Cedars just refused to wilt.
Despite capturing the Lancaster-Lebanon Section Two championship, the Cedars did not play their best basketball down the home stretch of the regular season. But all of a sudden, the now 16-8 and 11th seeded Cedars find themselves in a quarterfinal match-up with 14th-seeded Wislon, on Saturday at 10 a.m. at Hershey’s Giant Center, and with a trip to the PIAA tournament on their hands.
The seventh-seeded Cougars concluded their campaign at 17-6.
“That’s probably the best we played all year for four quarters,” said Lebanon head coach Tim Speraw. “We might have played better in spurts, but not for an entire game.
“I’m sure there’s people who are going to see the final score and be surprised,” Speraw continued. “And I’m sure there’s people who didn’t believe we could beat Harrisburg. But they (his players) believed. I believed. My coaching staff believed. And sometimes that’s all it takes.”
Nursing a two-point edge late in the final quarter, the Cedars notched the final nine points to ice it. Matty Lopez scored on a runner, Vargas followed up a lay-in with a couple of charity tosses, Allan Escoto bagged a pair of foul shots and Lopez canned a free throw of his own.
Earlier in the period, an Escoto stick-back had given Lebanon a 54-49 margin.
“I told them (his players) to stay patient and stick to the game plan,” said Speraw. “Having the lead helped, because we could stay in the zone. It was a matter of the kids listening. I think we did become more confident as the game went on. Having a lead and staying up, and seeing that things were working, gave us confidence the rest of way.
“We prepared for some of the things they were going to do in the second half,” continued Speraw. “There was focus at halftime. Tonight, we had it from beginning to end. When you have focus, determination and intensity good things happen.”
With the Cougars becoming increasing impatient against Lebanon’s zone, the Cedars got a steal and lay-in from Lopez and a nifty reverse move from Khalique Washington to open a 37-30 lead in the middle of the third quarter. Later in the stanza, Escoto made it 46-39 with a three-pointer..
“I thought we came with a fire,” said Speraw. “We believed we could win. Our kids played hard. Dante hit some huge shots. Our zone worked. We went zone, and never came out of it.
“It’s not an easy place to play,” added Speraw. “It was a big game. There was a lot on the line. The Giant Center. A trip to states. Advancing in districts. I’m just so proud of these guys. We’ve been through so much. But we had a little feeling. We believed in ourselves.”
Vargas fronted the Cedars’ balanced attack with a career-best 20 points that included four three-pointers. Escoto notched 15 points off the bench and Shaq Ortiz canned 14 points.
Lebanon made 14 of its 18 charity tosses and outscored Harrisburg by nine points at ‘the stripe’. The Cedars employed a team approach to hold their own against the Cougars on the glass.
“This was probably our best game as far as going to the scouting report and sticking to the game plan,” said Speraw. “But how about Dante Vargas? I love that kid.
“He’s (Ortiz) had an up and down season,” Speraw added. “He’s had some good games, maybe disappointing in some games. We had a little heart-to-heart talk after practice this week. I told him what I needed out of him. And man did he respond.”
The Cedars discovered their game late in the first quarter, after falling into a 13-6 hole.
With Ortiz going hard to the hole, Escoto laying in a deuce and Vargas drilling a trey, Lebanon tallied the last seven points of the opening period. Lebanon also scored the first five points of the second stanza, on another Vargas three-pointer and another Ortiz move inside, to establish an 18-13 advantage.
“Shaq carried us a little in the first quarter,” said Speraw. “Alan carried us a little in the second quarter. And Dante just hit big shots. Our bench was great. Everyone played great. It was a great win.
“It was a traditional 2-3 zone,” continued Speraw. “We wanted to keep it tight. We didn’t think anyone was going to light us up.”
Now with a bounce in their steps, the Cedars fashioned a 27-22 margin on two foul shots from Escoto, 2:22 before the break. A three-pointer by Vargas 22 seconds ahead of halftime gave Lebanon a 33-28 lead in the locker room.
“We played really well,” said Speraw. “As a coach, I’m going to dissect things we didn’t do well. But there were times we rebounded great, and there were times we really took care of the ball.
“We were confident,” Speraw continued. “I don’t think we were over-confident. We had internal issues the last couple of weeks. I wasn’t sure who was going to play. Maybe it was just the distraction we needed.”
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2015-16 Lebanon Boys’ Basketball Results
|7:30 PM||W 69-56|
|7:30 PM||L 60-61|
|7:30 PM||W 45-32|
|7:30 PM||W 74-56|
|7:30 PM||W 75-46|
|7:30 PM||W 60-45|
|7:30 PM||W 68-51|
|7:30 PM||W 63-45|
|3:30 PM||W 53-28|
|7:00 PM||W 45-37|
|1:00 PM||L 40-50|
|7:30 PM||L 61-64|
|7:30 PM||W 64-57|
|7:30 PM||W 62-56|
|7:30 PM||L 71-82|
|7:30 PM||L 32-44|
|7:30 PM||W 58-45|
|7:30 PM||W 60-43|
|7:30 PM||W 72-69|
|7:30 PM||L 45-48|
|7:30 PM||W 51-41|
|7:30 PM||L 62-65|
|7:00 PM||L 74-75|
|7:00 PM||W 65-56|
|10:00 AM||Giant Center, Hershey|
PIAA District Three
Final Class AAAA Power Rankings