BY JEFF FALK
EPHRATA – Section championships are clinched from ‘beyond the arc’, at home in February.
Section championships are earned at the foul line, on the road in December.
On Tuesday night at Ephrata Middle School, the road, the charity stripe and Ephrata’s Mountaineers were all equally unkind to the Lebanon boys’ basketball squad, as the Cedars were decked with boughs of holly 49-44 in a pre-holiday Lancaster-Lebanon Section Two encounter. With the outcome hanging in the balance in the final quarter, Lebanon failed to cash in on way too many opportunities and left a boat load of points on the free-throw line.
After opening the campaign 3-0, the loss left Lebanon 5-3 overall and 2-3 in Section Two. It also knocked the defending champion Cedars from the top perch in the early section standings.
The Lebanon-High-graduate-Jason-Coletti-coached Mounts improved to 2-5 on the year and 2-3 in the section.
“It’s a section game,” said Lebanon head coach Tim Speraw, scratching his head. “It’s important to go into the holidays on the right foot. We just didn’t come to play. It’s a shame. No, this isn’t the first time it’s happened this year. I’m not sure what it is. We didn’t prepare any differently. Mentally, we weren’t focused.
“It’s (the section title) always a goal,” continued Speraw. “Right now, we might be at the top of the standings, but I feel like we have a lot of work to do. We need to get better.”
While neither team led by more than a couple of possessions all evening long, it was Ephrata which grabbed the bull by the horns in crunch time.
Lebanon moved to within 34-33 of the Mountaineers two minutes into the final stanza on a stick back from Shaqwell Ortiz, and a minute later missed an opportunity to take the lead, on a series of events which turned out to be a four-point swing in Ephrata’s favor.
On the back end of a steal, Cedar Jahlil Ortiz misfired on a dunk and proceeded to hang on the rim, for which he was assessed a technical foul. Instead of the score being tied, the Mounts made the subsequent free throws to establish a 37-33 advantage it would never relinquish.
The rest of the outcome was decided at the free throw line. Ephrata went eight-for-13 at the foul stripe over the final five-plus-minutes of action, while Lebanon was seven-of-15.
“It’s been terrible,” said Speraw of his troops’ free throwing. “We work on it. We put time into it. It’s a matter of focus, and wanting to do better.
“Right now, I don’t think we have a workmanlike mentality like we had last year,” added Speraw. “At times, we don’t feel like we need to prepare as strongly.”
In the third quarter, Lebanon High’s inability to solve Ephrata’s trapping zone defense caused it to fall into a hole which it never pulled itself out of.
A jump hook from C. Ortiz extended the Cedars’ halftime lead to 22-16, and Lebanon was still clinging to a 27-24 margin four minutes later when J. Ortiz turned an offensive rebound into an old-school three-point play. But the Mounts notched the final eight points of the third quarter, and the initial two of the final period, to open a 34-27 advantage.
Lebanon connected on just one three-point field goal attempt all night.
“I thought we missed a ton of lay-ups, throughout the game, and missed free throws,” said Speraw. “We just needed to keep our composure when the traps and press came. We just needed to take care of the ball.
“But give them (the Mountaineers) credit,” Speraw added. “They played hard. Jason (Coletti) had them ready to play. It always seems like we don’t play well here.”
With 15 points, J. Ortiz was the only Lebanon scorer to find double figures. The Cedars finished a miserable 11-for-23 at the foul stripe, while Ephrata went 13-for-22 there.
“We’re still trying to find leadership a little,” said Speraw. “Noah (Sanders) and Luke (Eisenhour) have stepped up and led the younger guys. But I don’t know if there’s much behind those two. There’s only so much that they can do.
“Tonight we played terrible, if that sums it up,” continued Speraw. “I was displeased with our foul shooting, our composure, our mental effort at times.”
A 6-0 burst in the middle of the second period was as much responsible for Lebanon’s 20-16 halftime lead as anything. Eisenhour scored on a drive, sophomore Khalique Washington worked inside for a deuce and Ortiz converted a lay-in out of a steal to turn a 14-12 deficit into an 18-14 edge.
“I don’t think so,” said Speraw, when asked if his troops treat every section game with the same importance. “I don’t think we’ve played well in long enough stretches, throughout the year. We’ve done enough to win a couple of games. We’re far away from where we need to be. We need to play better. We need to practice better. We need to focus more.”
The Cedars closed the opening stanza on DeVaughn Rodriguez’s buzzer-beating, steal and lay-up that gave them a 10-6 lead. But Ephrata registered the first five points of the second quarter.
Section Two Standings