BY JEFF FALK
HARRISBURG – It was an absolutely miserable way to go out. But in the cruel and unforgiving world of playoff basketball, the concept of ‘appropriate send-offs’ simply doesn’t exist.
On Tuesday evening at Susquehanna Township High School, in the opening round of the District Three Class AAA playoffs, one of the most successful basketball boys’ basketball seasons in Northern Lebanon history came to an end with little or no pomp or circumstance. The Vikings were over matched, over run and overwhelmed by the host Indians, 71-47.
Employing superior size and strength, Susquehanna Township dominated the paint and outscored the Vikings 63-37 over the final 28 minutes of action. In fact, the Indians tallied an eye-popping 22 baskets from three-feet and in, a whopping 62 percent of their point total.
The loss ended 12th seeded Northern Lebanon’s season at 17-7, and the careers of a handful of senior credited with turning the Viking program around. But while the accolades and accomplishments along the way were plentiful, the banners and championships were few and far between.
Fifth-seeded Susquehanna Township, which started forwards measuring 6-6, 6-5 and 6-4, improved to 16-7 and barged into Friday’s quarterfinal round.
“We didn’t play well,” said Northern Lebanon head coach Gary Bouchette, taking nothing away from the physical Indians. “It is a tough way to end a season. But it shouldn’t take away from what these kids have given me. These kids played hard. I couldn’t ask anything more of them. This was the only game this season we were beaten.
“It was a great season,” Bouchette continued. “It’s going to be tough when I sit down and look at the team I had. This team was something special. I saw where we started, and where we ended up.”
“It was just a humbling experience to see how hard work paid off,” said senior guard Sam Light, who might go down in the annals of Viking basketball as the greatest to have ever played the game. “I’ll never forget my teammates. The personal stuff is good, but when I look back I’ll think of my teammates. It was more than basketball.”
The Vikings hung with the Indians for about four minutes, or until Susquehanna Township began to destroy them on the glass and in the paint. From that point until halftime, Susquehanna Township outscored Northern Lebanon 32-8 to take a 40-18 lead to the break.
And when the Indians netted the first two buckets of the second half, the Vikings were staring down a 26-point deficit on the road. Ultimately, Susquehanna Township’s bulge reached 70-33 in the middle of the final quarter.
“Even though I preached it to the kids, I was still concerned about the boards,” said Bouchette. “I don’t think they made any outside shots. Their (the Indians’) first 15 points came from under the basket. I told our guys if we’re going to win, we’ve got to limit their points inside, and that’s where they (the Indians) scored all their points.
“At halftime, basically I said that we have to play our basketball,” Bouchette added. “We weren’t running our sets. We weren’t setting our screens. We weren’t pushing the basketball. And this is no surprise, I told them ‘box out!’. And probably more than once.”
“Coming in, what we had to do was rebound, plain and simple,” said Light. “Most of their points came on second chances. They out muscled us.”
Light, who played with a severely bruised left hand sustained at practice the night before – and aggravated several times throughout – pumped in 20 points. The rest of Susquehanna Township’s points came from four three-pointers and six charity tosses.
“He injured his left hand last night at practice,” said Bouchette of Light. “I honestly didn’t know if he was going to go. He didn’t want to get it checked out. What do you say, ‘go get it checked out’? Anybody could see he wasn’t himself tonight. It really affected his ball handling, but he battled.
“Richard (Iwuagwu) to me, battled,” added Bouchette. “He was doing a lot of things. We played well individually, just not as a team. If you would’ve asked me four years ago if ‘Sunshine’ (Daymon Long) and Christian (Morales) were going to play varsity basketball, I probably would’ve said ‘no’. I kept them on the seventh grade team because they hustled.”
“It didn’t hit me yet that this was the last game of my career,” said Light. “It’ll hit me tonight. We played hard. If we were 100 percent, we could’ve given them a good game.”
Northern Lebanon enjoyed five separate modest leads early. An Iwuagwu drive gave it a 2-0 edge. A Light pull-up made it a 4-2 Viking margin. With Iwuagwu’s trey, Northern Lebanon regained a 7-6 advantage. And a charity toss from Isaac Ray pushed the visitors ahead 10-8.
But after that, it was all Indians.
“We worked on a couple of things in practice that we don’t normally do,” said Bouchette. “But it’s tough to simulate what they (the Indians) do. I thought we had a decent game plan. They were just too strong inside for us. They were definitely the strongest team we played all year.
“It’s (our size) not a secret,” added Bouchette. “Give me a break. You can see that type of stuff from a mile away.”
“I played a lot against them (the Indians) in the summer,” said Light. “I knew how good they were. They’re going to go far.”
With Susquehanna Township up by as many as 30 points in the waning minutes, Bouchette decided to keep most of his seniors on the floor. It was, after all, those players who had gotten the Vikings to that point in the first place.
“They earned it,” said Bouchette. “They’re seniors. I thought about pulling them out and allowing them to get applause from the crowd. But they put their time in.
“When he was a freshman, Sam didn’t play varsity,” Bouchette continued. “But he was the leading scorer when he was a sophomore, a junior and a senior. That takes effort. That takes hard work. I can’t take any credit for that. That’s all his effort.”
“We’re a little team,” said Light. “That’s no excuse. But they have five guys and we have five guys. That’s how it ends.”