BY JEFF FALK
LEBANON – Traditionally, Elco has been a team made up of seasoned athletes who have made hoops their second and third athletic pursuits. But times, as they say, may be a changing.
And this new commitment to basketball may be behind something else new – a good start.
On Friday night, in the opening round of the Lebanon Booster Club Tip-Off Tournament, the Raiders put their past behind them by whipping Muhlenberg 54-43. Elco never trailed after running out to a 15-5 lead, and led by as many as 26 points early in the fourth quarter.
A perennial consolation-prize contestant in the Cedars’ annual event, Elco will meet the host team on Saturday at 7:30 p.m., for all the championship marbles. The Raiders are coming off a 7-15 season in which they finished well off the pace in Section Three of the Lancaster-Lebanon League.
“We’ve been in some tight games,” said Elco head coach Brad Conners of his program’s history in the tournament. “But I’m focusing on this group. This group of kids, they came out with a desire, and they were ready from the jump ball.
“We’ve been building this thing for a little while,” continued Conners. “To the kids’ credit, they’re not afraid to work. They come to practice with smiles on their faces. The air in the gym is fresh. A lot of our players take their cues from Colton (junior forward, Lawrence). I’ve got basketball players. These kids literally picked up the ball in March, and played through the spring, through the summer and even into fall. Tonight, Colton played his game.”
Already ahead 11, Elco put the outcome out of reach with a 21-8 run through the third period. While holding Muhlenberg without a point for a three-minute stretch in the middle of it, the Raiders took a 42-24 advantage on a hard drive to the hole from junior slasher Caleb Buchmoyer.
Elco’s advantage reached 54-28 on a Lawrence inside maneuver 41 seconds into the final quarter.
“Being the first game, there’s a question,” said Conners. “There’s a question about Muhlenberg. You don’t know until you play. The guys we had on the floor, they started playing in March. But they all had butterflies before the game.”
Playing bigger than his 6-2 frame, Lawrence picked up where he left off last season and poured in a game-high 29 points on 11 field goals, one of which came from ‘downtown’. Emerging sophomore guard Mason Bossert tossed in 11 points, thanks to a trio of three-point baskets.
“Colton is big, he’s strong and he can finish,” said Conners. “He can jump out of the gym. He’s a stud and we depend on him a lot. When he catches the ball inside, it’s over.”
Elco raced out to a ten-point lead in the game’s first four minutes, and a Bossert trey made it 18-5 Raiders. Then 1:19 into the second stanza, Lawrence stuck back a teammate’s miss to push Elco’s advantage to 25-9.
Elco enjoyed a 31-20 cushion at intermission.
“The start was huge,” said Conners. “At halftime, I told the kids were going to start the second half the way we started the first half. I told them, ‘We’re not going to settle for jump shots. We’re going to get to the basket’. I think we can learn for this. I think we can build from this.
“On the defensive end, we knew we had to be in help positions, and we had to get in the passing lanes and in the gaps,” Conners continued. “In the second quarter, we weren’t in those gaps. At halftime, I challenged them (his players) to take a charge. And I thought it was a huge momentum builder for us when we did that at the start of the second half.”
Thanks in part to 13 fourth-quarter turnovers, the Raiders didn’t finish the contest as well as they started it. Though the result was never in doubt, the Muhls notched the game’s last 15 points to make the final score appear closer than it really was.
“We showed a little bit of our youthfulness down the stretch,” said Conners. “We wanted to make sure we ended the game the right way.
“I don’t know if they (his players) thought they had it in the bag,” continued Conners. “But I think they were comfortable. We have kids who are learning to process the game. Mason (Bossert) is learning how to finish games, and so is Colton. Everyone had a turn down the stretch.”
But on this night at least, the start was more important than the finish.