FREDERICKSBURG – Winning the championship of your own holiday tourney for the first time in 20 years is swell. But the Northern Lebanon boys’ basketball team’s ultimate goal involves earning a berth in a tournament that doesn’t send out invitations.
On Saturday night, the Vikings took another small step towards that goal by beating Elco 65-51 to win the title of the Northern Lebanon Booster Club Christmas Tournament. The Vikes gained control of the outcome early in the second quarter with three-point shooting, rebounding and defense, and never relinquished it.
Despite the absence of injured inside banger Pat Stevens, Northern Lebanon improved to 6-3 on the year. The Vikes, who edged Conestoga Valley 60-59 on Friday to reach the title tilt, are now 2-1 against Lebanon County competition, with three more such games to play.
The Raiders, who fell to 3-6 overall, had defeated New Covenant 71-45 on Friday night.
“They’d (his players) probably say that getting to districts is our number one goal, but I wouldn’t,” said Northern Lebanon head coach Gary Bouchette. “I want to play better every night, and districts will take care of itself. If we take care of getting better, then districts will take care of itself.
“We have to take care of those (County) games,” Bouchette continued. “You’ve got to look at the power rankings. We have to win the games we can, and sneak a game here or there. I do have a number (of wins) in mind, but I’m not going to say. We’ll see how it plays out. Every time we step on the court we’re going to have to play well.”
“Hat’s off to Gary,” said Elco head coach Brad Conners. “He’s got some athletes on that team. He’s got some basketball players on that team. When I think of Northern Lebanon, I think of their guards. I thought there was an opportunity with him (Stevens) out. With him not being out there, I thought there might be some good matches.
“That’s not the typical Northern Lebanon team, even with the big guy out,” added Conners. “Light’s got some speed, doesn’t he? And their guards are battle-tested.”
Elco jumped on Northern Lebanon early and opened a modest 8-3 lead. A high-scoring first quarter ended with the Vikes ahead 19-16.
It was early in the second that NL’s Sam Light and Richard Iwuagwu drilled back-to-back-to-back treys that pushed the Vikes’ advantage to 28-18. It didn’t hurt that Northern Lebanon held Elco without a point for a 3:34 stretch.
“I thought the key was the rebounding,” said Bouchette. “They (the Raiders) were killing us on the rebounds. We settled down and boxed out, and we took care of the glass. To me, that was the biggest turn-around.
“I don’t want to play that style (run and gun), because you can live and die by it,” Bouchette added. “I can live with the ‘three’ if we can get inside and kick it out. But we were coming down and jacking the first ‘three’ we got. But they (the Raiders) made some shots.”
“I felt like we came out and were ready,” said Conners. “The last three games we came out ready to play. I don’t know if we wear out in the second half or what. We kind of got the deer-in-the-headlights look when the threes started.
“When we have to deal with his (Light’s) penetration, it’s a double-edged sword,” Conners added. “They’re jump shooters got us.”
“It was back and forth at the beginning,” said Iwuagwu, the tournament’s most valuable player. “I thought it was too close at halftime. I knew that in the second half we needed to pick it up. I thought we needed to get a little more inside, work our offense a little more.”
Iwuagwu being named the MVP raised a few eyebrows, especially in light of the fact that Light dropped in a game-high 26 points, on a pair of three-point field goals and ten-for-ten foul shooting. Iwuagwu, who again stood out defensively, nailed four three-point baskets and finished with 12 points, while sophomore teammate Isaac Ray tossed in 13 points.
For the Raiders, Colton Lawrence pumped in 20 points and Jacob Buchmoyer contributed 11. In addition to Iwuagwu, the all-tournament team featured Light, Lawrence, Buchmoyer and New Covenant big man Nathan Dawson.
Northern Lebanon drained 16 of 20 foul shots and outscored the Raiders by 15 points at the stripe.
“Let me tell you, that kid (Light) knows how to get to the line,” said Iwuagwu. “He can single-handedly get us to the bonus. He can really penetrate. He’s just amazing. I think he pushes us to be better.
“That’s what people don’t understand,” said Bouchette. “Richard does the little things, stepping in and taking charges, diving for loose balls. He’s a quiet leader. I don’t think people realize how much he means to this team, how he’s a steading influence.
“It’s been a while since we’ve won this,” Bouchette added. “To them (his players), it’s big, it’s real big. We’ve always been close with this group. I know it’s just a tournament, but to them, it’s important. Now we can build on this.”
“I think the last few games since the Annville game, we have competed,” said Conners. “We compete and I am happy about that. I’d just like to see our guys a little more uncomfortable when we’re behind.
“It’s human nature to say, ‘I’ve got to do it myself. I’ve got to make it happen for our team,'” Conners continued. “At times we get away from playing team basketball. We’ve been talking to our guys about playing team basketball.”
The Vikings re-opened their ten-point lead three times in the third quarter – at 39-29, at 41-31 and at 43-33, on pairs of charity tosses from Light, and then from Ray. Northern Lebanon scored the last basket of the third stanza and the first bucket of the final quarter to push its margin to 51-36.
“I can’t worry about it,” said Bouchette of Stevens’ injury. “Just his rebounding presence alone, it’s huge. His size is very important to us. He’s averaging about 12 points a game. Now other guys have to step up.
“I thought tonight, at times, we played together real well,” Bouchette added. “It didn’t help that my other big man was sick.”
“Absolutely, we’ve grown and matured,” said Conners, whose club was without the services of sophomore center Cameron Paul. “What was tonight, 14 or 15 points? I don’t think the (final) score lately has been indicative of our play. We’ve been in every game, for three or four quarters. Now it’s about the young guys finishing it off. That’s the next step.
“The next time we play them (the Vikes), we’ve got to contest shots better, contest the jump shot,” Conners continued. “(Isaac) Ray’s capable of hitting shots too. I just think we can go a better job of that.”
In the consolation tilt, Conestoga Valley pulled away from New Covenant for an 86-45 triumph, its second victory of the campaign. Dawson accumulated 23 points in defeat.