BY JEFF FALK
There’s something to be said for catching a team off-guard, before it hits its stride and fully settles in. But as a general rule, sneak attacks are much better executed by veteran clubs than they are by those re-shuffling the deck.
On Friday night, a re-tooled Lebanon boys’ basketball club startled an experienced Palmyra squad in the opening round of the Cedars’ annual tip-off tournament. Down the stretch, Lebanon High’s poise and composure paid big dividends, and it came away with a 66-60 overtime victory over the Cougars.
After both teams’ season-opener was tied at 51 in regulation, the Cedars outscored Palmyra 15-9 in the extra five-minute session. Lebanon High notched five unanswered points late in the overtime, and took the lead for good on a Drey Murray drive with 1:50 to go.
Two subsequent free throws from Murray made it 59-56 Cedars, and a couple of charity tosses from Lebanon High big man Brandon Whitman a minute later made it a two-possession affair.
The win moved Lebanon into Saturday’s 7:45 p.m. championship game of the event, opposite Tulpehocken, which took care of Elco in the opener. The Cougars and Raiders will square off at 6 p.m. with the consolation prize at stake.
“I was nervous because I knew Palmyra was going to come to play,” said Lebanon head coach Tim Spreraw. “I heard nothing but good things about them. They’re going to win a lot of games this season. But we kept our composure and found shots.”
“All the credit to Lebanon,” said Palmyra head coach Pete Conrad. “They played really well. They were really ready to play a basketball game. We were on our heels. Credit to Lebanon for putting us on our heels.
“We will have to grow from this,” Conrad continued. “What we have to understand is that when you step into a bigger role, the intensity is greater and more is expected of you. But Lebanon has some guys who stepped into new roles too.”
After the Cedars jumped out to an early advantage, much of the second half was a back-and-forth affair. With the score tied, Lebanon held the ball for the final 1:06 of regulation and got off three ‘last’ shots. But each was contested and rushed.
“I wanted it to be the last shot,” said Speraw. “I didn’t want any shot but the last shot.”
Neither team led by more than three points in the fourth quarter and a lay-in by Lebanon senior guard Josh Lopez tied the game at 51 with 1:47 left.
Using balanced scoring, Palmyra tallied the last nine points of the third period to turn a 41-33 deficit into a 42-41 edge. A Whitman-led burst had given Lebanon High that eight-point lead.
“As a coach, you think you can play better,” said Speraw. “But for opening night, a win is a win. We played well in spurts and we played poorly in spurts. Fortunately, our good runs out weighed our bad runs.
“For a first game, getting out with a win was important,” added Speraw. “The kids played great tonight. Just the team work and the comraderie. It was fun to watch as a coach. You want to be tested, and we were.”
“My thinking would be that we have a lot of players back,” said Conrad. “They have some players to replace. This is a corner we should have turned.”
With 23 points, Lopez led all scorers. Whitman converted seven-of-eight foul shots and finished with 13 points.
Seven of Cougar Colby Conway’s 15 points came on offensive rebounds in overtime, while teammate Adam Newhard stroked a pair of treys as part of his dozen points. Palmyra’s Logan Stovall, the leading scorer among returning players in Lebanon County, was limited to six points.
“He worked his butt off in the fall,” said Speraw of Lopez. “In the weight room, he got quicker and stronger. He had a positive attitude coming in. I’m glad he kind of broke out tonight.
“Brandon (Whitman) played huge tonight,” Speraw continued. “He just kept fighting and fighting. He was out-manned in there. And he hit some huge foul shots down the stretch.”
“Give our guys credit for battling,” said Conrad. “(Brandon) Petrouskie gave us a great effort. He knows what it means to play a bigger role. Colby is opportunistic and he gave us something.”
Early on, Lebanon was able to take Palmyra out of its game a bit, and the result was 10 consecutive points and advantages of 16-4 and 26-16. But the Cougars closed the half on a 7-2 rush, and opened the second half with five straight points to take its first lead of the game, 29-28 on a Newhard bomb.
“We’re still finding our identity,” said Speraw. “I think we have some really good guards and a bunch of leaders. Nobody cares who scores. Tomorrow night it might be someone else scoring 20 points and another guy scoring 15.”
“Certainly we need to play the game in attack mode,” said Conrad. “That’s where Lebanon was. And we need to get better guarding the ball.
“It’s nice to play two other Lebanon County teams,” Conrad added. “It’s (the tournament) nice because it’s regional. Lebanon has a great program. It’s a great gym to play in, and it’s a great atmosphere.”