When talking about the Reading Red Knight Boys’ Basketball program, there may never be a night quite as sweet as the one on March 25, 2017. By now, you’re probably well aware of the story. That after all, was the night where the entire city of Reading descended upon the Giant Center to watch their beloved program shake a 118 year old monkey off it’s back when they held off the Pine Richland Rams 64-60 for the school’s first ever state title. But as is the case every year in the hustle and bustle go-go world of high school hoops, time waits and celebrates for no one. A lesson that Reading head coach Rick Perez and his cast of Red Knights knew they would have to learn quickly as the always large bullseyes on their backs had now grown to mammoth-sized proportions. But so far, so good.
Coming into Saturday’s contest against McCaskey, a foe that the Red Knights have seen for over the last century, Reading had accumulated a 7-2 overall mark in the AL era. After Lonnie. “Lonnie” of course being the Red Knights’ transcendent catalyst who helped rejuvenate Red Knight basketball, capturing the hearts of young and old alike along the way before eventually turning his hometown success story into McDonald’s All American honors and a basketball scholarship into the prestigious and historic ACC conference at the University of Miami. A Hurricanes team that oh by the way just so happened to be residing in the Top 10 rankings just a few short weeks ago.
And even despite their hard-charge out of the gates to open the 2017-18 campaign, it could be argued that this year’s group of Red Knights have yet to hit their ceiling. And so, after a few days of sitting idle thanks to this week’s winter storm system, Reading finally took to the floor at the historic Geigle Complex to see if Saturday night against McCaskey would be their best 32 minute stretch of basketball yet to date.
For the visitors hailing from the Red Rose city, the Red Tornado needed just any sort of spark to ignite their season as McCaskey entered the weekend with a surprising 2-7 overall mark, dropping a home contest to Warwick just the night before. And what better way for the Red Tornado to find a possible surge of momentum than to take the down the reigning 6A state champion on their home floor, a feat that very few ever get to tell.
Once the game got underway, it was evident that this would be an all-out, in your face type of 94 foot basketball game. Attributes that likely suited both squads just fine being the fiber of both the Red Tornado and Red Knights’ shared DNAs. Sure enough, the frenetic pace yielded the first points of the contest just seconds in when an offensive board and stick back was put home by Reading’s Ricki Lopez which saw the Red Knights get on the board first.
Playing a stifling brand of defense down on the other end, Reading was able to see their early-game lead increase when Red Knight senior leader RJ Dixon buried a trifecta that was all cotton, as 5’10” point guard put Reading up by a 10-2 mark with 4:40 left in the opening quarter.
But with the game sitting at such a critical juncture early, McCaskey would have to rise to the challenge. Fortunately for pro-Tornado backers, their team was able to do exactly that as McCaskey responded by going on a 6-2 run following the Dixon triple to get back within four at 12-8 following a steal and finish by 6’3” sophomore forward Makai Ortiz at the 3:30 mark.
Although Reading would be able to push their lead back up to half a dozen following a baseline jumper by Kahari Whitfield, the Red Tornado came right back as a sweet dime laid off to Tallian Lehr inside courtesy of energetic junior guard Brian McKenzie got the McCaskey back within four at 16-12 just moments before the first quarter clock expired.
Coming out of the brief respite between quarters, it was hard to envision a much better beginning for Reading than the used to start the second stanza. The Red Knights exploded for a 4-0 blitz out of the chute that was capped off with a bucket inside by Kahari Whitfield which knocked McCaskey back on their collective heels to start the second quarter.
But once again, the Red Tornado refused to flinch, answering back blow for blow with one of District 3’s better outfits. And before everyone knew it, McCaskey could look up and find them themselves within a deuce at 24-22 at the 3:30 mark of the second quarter following a strong take to the rack by Red Tornado junior forward Jahsaan Greaves.
However the Red Knights would end up having a rebuttal of their own as a 6-2 Reading flurry would follow suit. A run that was finished off by Reading’s dynamic junior dynamo Wesley Butler which made it a 30-24 Reading advantage, prompting a McCaskey timeout with just 1:18 left in the opening half.
From there on out however, the aforementioned 6-2 run would see itself grow into a 9-2 salvo to close the half as bucket inside just before the horn by Ricki Lopez made it a 33-24 Reading lead at the break.
In many ways, the 3 ball that was popped by McCaskey’s Brian McKenzie at the 6:19 mark of the third quarter should have served as an indication of things to come as both the Red Knights and Red Tornado found themselves living quite lavishly from behind the arc in the third frame.
After McKenzie’s triple got the Red Tornado within eight at 35-27, another 3 ball dialed up Makai Ortiz of the Red Tornado kept the deficit at eight with the Red Knights still in front 38-30. But Reading would have an answer at the 4:30 mark of the third quarter as a triple splashed home by Wesley Butler saw the Red Knight lead eventually swell to nine at 41-32.
Although the name of the game in the third quarter would prove to be outside shooting from both squads, it would ironically be a bucket in the paint that would get the Geigle crowd up on their feet with excitement which is precisely what happened when Wesley Butler went behind his back en route to the hoop to put the Red Knights up 43-34, as the 5’11” guard put home 2 of his prettiest 23 points on the night.
From there, backcourt mate RJ Dixon was able to take the baton and run with it as Dixon himself put home a triple which got Reading’s first real snowball rolling downhill with Red Knight lead now standing at a dozen, 46-34.
Yet again though, McCaskey was able to answer the bell when put in a precarious position. After a triple knocked in by Brian McKenzie got the Red Tornado back into single digits at 46-37, Reading would see their lead grow into a baker’s dozen in the waning moments of the third period before another 3 ball, courtesy of guess who, Mr. McKenzie, made it a 50-40 Red Knight lead heading into the final frame. On the night, McKenzie would go on to capture team-high scoring honors by chipping in 17 to the Red Tornado effort.
However much in the same vein that Reading was able to have an early swing that knocked McCaskey back to start the second quarter, the Red Knights were able to do the same and then some at the start of the fourth quarter as critical Red Tornado turnovers at the onset of the final stanza helped pave the way for a 7-0 Reading charge, punctuated by a steal and lay in put home by Wesley Butler, forcing McCaskey to burn a timeout to stem the tide.
Although McCaskey would eventually come up short on this night, it was certainly not for a lack of fight. Never more was that evidenced than by the immediate 10-3 retaliation that ensued following the timeout that was highlighted by a 3 ball popped by one of the L-L’s most lethal shooters, junior guard Ajani Simmons, which made it a 60-50 ballgame with four minutes left to go.
But just as he had all game long, Wesley Butler proved to be the straw that stirs Reading’s drink as the junior point guard rattled off his own personal 5-0 scoring run to push the Red Knight lead up to a now insurmountable 15 with time starting to run out on a possible McCaskey charge.
Even though McCaskey was able to get back around the 10 point window with time beginning to run out, a pair of free throws cashed in by 6’4” junior forward Juan Matos grew the Red Knight advantage to 16 at 69-53 with 2:15 left to play. And although McCaskey would indeed get it back to within 10 at 73-63 following a triple rained down by veteran senior guard Isiah Speller who would go on to finish with 15 on the night, it was not enough in order to travel home on Route 222 with a victory as Reading went on to close things out 77-66, moving to 8-2 on the season.
It wasn’t a masterpiece by any means for Reading on Saturday night, but a win is a win is a win. Especially when trying to build off of a historic year that will never be forgotten and will never be replicated. Yet once again, here they are, hovering at the top of the District 3 6A standings. Even still, it appears that this year’s group of Red Knights have yet to truly hit their stride. A dangerous thought for the rest of District 3. “We have some work to do,” Reading High head coach Rick Perez admitted after the Red Knights’ triumph over McCaskey. “They have to learn the grit and the grind of the season. It’s hard to ask a young man to be at top of his game every single day, but they have to understand the importance of seizing every single day,” last year’s Pennsylvania 6A Coach of the Year went on to add regarding this year’s squad. “We’re not quite there yet. We’ll go back, review film, and try to give them examples and visuals of what we need.” But when they do get to operating that their maximum level, look out. It could all amount to another winter of having to make more room in an already overcrowded trophy case at the Castle on the Hill.
NEXT UP: Following their nonconference victory on Saturday night, Reading will once again reenter Berks conference play again on Monday night when the Red Knights take on the Blazers from Daniel Boone back home at the Geigle. After that, Reading look off onto the horizon and see fellow Berks heavyweights Exeter, Wilson, and Mifflin all waiting in the wings to get their first crack at the Red Knights so far this season.
Much like their counterparts on Saturday night, McCaskey will jump back into conference play again this week with the three main headliners in L-L Section 1 waiting on them as the Red Tornado will tangle with the likes of Manheim Township, Hempfield, and Cedar Crest in their upcoming L-L games. As if that schedule wasn’t hard enough, McCaskey will do battle with Williamsport, a Millionaire squad that made it to the 6A PIAA Sweet 16 last season before getting knocked out by Hempfield, in a Saturday night affair sandwiched in between the Hempfield and Cedar Crest contests.