Without question, the number one goal for each and every team LL team that reconvenes every fall for the start of preseason practices is to play beyond their regular season slate and make the playoffs whether it be leagues, districts, or for even more select few, having the opportunity to take part in both. On Monday night at Warwick High School, two of the hottest teams in the entire league that fit the latter description met at long last for arguably the most anticipated game on the opening night of the league playoffs as both Ephrata and Cedar Crest made the short trips into Lititz to do battle.
While Ephrata first year coach Jon Treese and eighth year Cedar Crest head man Tommy Smith each began the season with the challenge of managing lofty expectations for both of their clubs respectively, both the Mounts and Falcons have been able to handle their business and then some as both squads had authored their own brand of dominating basketball for key segments during the regular season campaign with each ending the regular season with impressive final statements.
If anything, Monday’s night affair felt more like a collision course wrapped in a basketball game. Ask any coach who is fortunate enough to play on into the postseason and chances are you’ll likely tell you that they want to being playing their best ball heading into survive and advance territory. Well, as far as both Cedar Crest and Ephrata were concerned, that description rang true in spades.
Cedar Crest came into the evening as winners of six of their last seven ballgames with their only hiccup coming against eventual Section 1 champion Hempfield on the road in Landisville while Ephrata entered the postseason scorching-hot.
Look around and it’s hard to find an LL squad that had a better closing argument than the Mounts. Winners of their last six contests and eight of their last nine overall, Ephrata would finally get their first shot of the season at raising some eyebrows if they could take down a perennial Section 1 power with absolutely everything riding on the line. And boy did they ever.
Once the game finally got underway, things couldn’t have started off much better for Cedar Crest. Aided by a Cole Laney dunk on the Falcons’ first offensive possession of the ballgame, Laney proceeded to step outside and sink a 3 ball to put Cedar Crest out in front 5-0 at the 6:15 mark of the opening quarter with the Mounts first few possessions being maligned with turnovers against the stingy Falcon D.
Once Ephrata did settle down and get into the flow of the game, the Mounts found success by dialing up the long ball. As it would turn out, Ephrata would continue to be calling collect all night long.
Faced with the early 5-0 deficit, the Mounts turned to the savvy veteran duo of Brad DaBella and Zach McGillan to help lead them through the choppy waters. And luckily for Ephrata, the two-headed monster was able to come through just when the Mounts needed it most as back to back triples cashed in by DaBella and McGillan respectively gave the Mounts their first lead of the game at 6-5. It would prove to be a lead they would never relinquish.
But the party didn’t just stop there. In fact, the Mounts were able to pour in two more trifectas shortly thereafter to get out to a somewhat surprising 12-5 lead midway through the opening quarter before a Jaiden Melendez jumper for Cedar Crest took just a little bit of wind out of the Ephrata sails in the early going.
However the Ephrata snowball would only continue to roll downhill after that as another triple stuck by 6’ senior guard Sam Cable put the Mounts up by ten at 19-9 before a pair of Zach McGillian 3 balls would close the opening eight minutes, the last of which came by way of a halfcourt heave just before the first quarter buzzer as Ephrata was able to head into the second stanza in possession of the 25-11 lead aided by a sensational first quarter shooting display of seven, count ‘em seven, knockdowns from behind the arc in the opening eight minutes.
Unfortunately for those that traveled south from Cornwall, the break in between quarters did nothing to slow down the purple-clad Mounts as Ephrata only continued to show off their long-range capabilities by pouring in two more trifectas to start the second period before the Mounts’ Dilyn Becker drove hard to the tin, coming away with a tough layup inside as the 6’ senior guard put Ephrata up 35-15 at the 5:20 mark of the second quarter, prompting Cedar Crest to call a timeout staring at what felt like a gargantuan hole.
And although Cedar Crest would continue to play hard throughout the remainder of the second quarter as evidenced by Cole Laney’s old-fashioned three point play which trimmed the Ephrata lead down to 41-22, Ephrata continued to torch the nets at Warwick High School as two more triples over the course of the second quarter put in by 6’2” junior guard Zach McGillan gave the Mounts a 20 point lead at 44-24 with just over one minute remaining in the opening half.
But before the final curtain would fall on the opening half, Ephrata’s Dilyn Becker was there to cash in a sweet stepback jumper to send the Mounts into the break with the 46-25 lead, likely turning plenty of heads across the Lancaster Lebanon League basketball landscape in the process.
And once the dust finally settled, it showed Ephrata pumping in an eye-popping 11 triples through the first 16 minutes of action. A simply astounding feat that Ephrata head man Jon Treese truly had his team prepared for. “We talked about matchups, especially in the playoffs and you have to figure out which matchup you have the best chance on. We kind of had it in our minds where if they would leave Zach (McGillan) open, we were going to let Zach shoot,” Treese said of the junior’s sharpshooting display, most specifically in the opening half. “He just stepped up and made a lot of big shots.”
But make no mistake about it, it simply wasn’t just the Zach McGillan show for Ephrata in the first half. Rather, the entire team stepped up and pulled their weight in a big way throughout the first 16 minutes of Monday night’s game to knock Cedar Crest back in their tracks. Something Coach Treese was certainly excited to see out of his battle-tested Mounts.
“Our guys did a really nice job of executing sets which gave us different looks to keep them off balance, so we were getting set up looks, and natural drives and kicks,” Treese said when eluding to his team’s offensive execution at the onset of the contest before stating simply, “It just seems like our offense gelled the right way tonight.”
And once the second half got underway, Mr. McGillan continued to be a painful thorn in Cedar Crest’s side as the junior donning #54 proceeded to knock down yet another trifecta in the opening moments of the second half as the Ephrata lead had ballooned to 51-27 with Cedar Crest looking desperately for answers. And fast.
And while the scoreboard may not have given a true indication on what was happening out on the floor over the ensuing few minutes, Cedar Crest began to test Ephrata’s will by driving relentlessly to the tin in hopes that the constant body blows would help amount over time as Falcons kept chomping away bit by bit.
Instrumental to that cause was 6’ junior guard Logan Horn who just kept pushing and pushing with persistent man-sized drives to the rack over and over again to keep the Falcons within reach with still plenty of time left to go.
But the brick wall that Ephrata had built up over the first half was proving to be a tough barricade for Cedar Crest to crack as a Zach McGillan reverse at the cup made it a 20 point Ephrata lead at 55-35 with five minutes still left to tick off the third quarter clock.
Yet despite the fact Cedar Crest continued to push and push as evidenced by a 4-0 Falcon run that was capped off by a bucket inside by Cole Laney who finished with a team-high 20 points, to draw the Falcons to within 55-39 with four minutes left in the third, another Ephrata 3 ball spelled doom for Cedar Crest as this time it was Brad DaBella who popped a 3 to increase the Mounts’ advantage to 62-41 before the third quarter would eventually expire with Ephrata in control, taming the Falcons 64-43.
To their credit, the level of fight that Cedar Crest continued to display albeit while playing in a deep hole continued to remain a remarkable storyline. And once more, the Falcons simply continued to make Ephrata earn everything they down the stretch as an 8-0 Cedar Crest rally to begin the fourth cut the Ephrata down to just a dozen at 64-52 following a hoop plus the harm put up and in by 6’1” senior forward Brandon Showers at the 5:34 mark.
But from there, Ephrata would continue to have the answer, from bonus distance no less, as Ephrata’s ultra-talented wing weapon-extraordinaire Brad DaBella continued to set the nets ablaze with another trey, good for 3 of his 22 points on the evening, to put Ephrata back in front by 15 at 67-52 with five minutes left to play.
Yet once again, Cedar Crest simply refused to make living easy the rest of the way for the Mounts as a pair of Dylan Miller freebies at the line cut Ephrata’s lead down to sizeable 11 at 69-58 considering there was still 2:55 left to tick off a clock that simply could not move fast enough for the Mounts.
But unfortunately, the frustration of the night would finally come to a head as the Falcons were whistled for an ill-timed technical foul call shortly thereafter with the margin still within reason and momentum clearly swinging the way of Cedar Crest.
Following the free throws after the dead ball technical, Ephrata was able to increase their lead to 16 at 76-60 with time quickly running out on the Falcons comeback efforts.
However once again, Cedar Crest continued to scrap and claw their way for everything as a 5-0 run authored by Jaiden Melendez cut the Mounts’ lead down to 78-67 with 1:15 left to play.
Once Cedar Crest played the foul game to send Holden Haws to the line on the ensuing Ephrata inbounds, the 5’9” senior guard stepped up the plate valiantly by converting 1-2 on the trip to help keep Cedar Crest at bay in the midst of a herculean effort being engineered by the Falcons.
And despite the fact that Cedar Crest would close the gap down to as few as ten in the waning minutes following a strong take to the cup by Dylan Miller who would finish with 18 on the night to make it a 79-69 lead in favor of the Mounts, a pair off Zach McGillan free throws down at the other end immediately after helped close the book on Cedar Crest’s comeback effort as the junior dynamo helped seal the deal with a monstrous 30 point night of work to vault Ephrata into the LL semifinal round with a 84-69 victory over arguably the LL’s greatest program the last handful of years.
All in all, it was a resounding triumph for Ephrata on Monday night. Arguably one of the Mounts’ biggest wins in years. And while Ephrata certainly played extraordinarily well over the span of 32 minutes against Cedar Crest, Coach Treese was quick to point out that efforts like this are truly built well in advance. “I think first of all, these kids have put in a ton of work to get us to this point,” the Mounts’ head man stated after the game on Monday night. “We talk about all the minutes we’ve logged and the things we’ve done and I said to them, ‘This is an opportunity that you’ve truly earned. You shouldn’t let anybody take something away that I feel you’ve truly earned,” Treese went on to detail. “I think they were focused on that the whole time, like this was their opportunity to come out and show exactly what they were capable of. I think in terms of a program-wide thing, it shows how much hard work pays off. It shows what kind of athletes we have here at Ephrata and as a head coach, you want to use that as a springboard to keep going.”
And without question, Ephrata does not find itself in it’s current situation without the leadership and guidance set forth by their stellar core of upperclassmen leaders. Ironically a group that found themselves in the exact same situation just one year ago. Yet even though the Mounts have now made it back to the LL playoffs for yet another go of it, Coach Treese explained that it’s vital for teams to recognize and appreciate the fact that every team starts the postseason off with a clean slate and the basketball gods do not look upon anyone with any more favor based upon what you have done historically once the postseason gets underway.
“Like I explained to them, there’s only one way to approach any playoff tournament,” Treese said regarding the message he delivered to his squad before this week. “You can’t get too caught up on ‘Have you been there before?’ You can’t concern yourself as much with that. If you prepare yourself every practice, every time you’re in the gym to get ready for the next 32 minutes and you just focus on those 32 minutes, the rest takes care of itself… So opposite of that. We kind of got away from saying who’s experienced what,” Treese explained. “I’ve been a part of district runs, state runs and all that kind of stuff and I’ve found that the less you talk about those sorts of things and the more you just talk about being prepared for these 32 minutes, it just makes it simpler for kids,” as Treese went to elaborate before adding with a chuckle, “The less they think about the better.”
NEXT UP: Without question, Ephrata has earned the right to revel in its victory over Cedar Crest. But once that celebration ceases, the Mounts must prepare to go full-steam ahead for a battle against the defending league champs from a year ago in Lancaster Catholic on Wednesday in the league semifinals which will be contested at Penn Manor. And it’s a matchup that Coach Treese and his squad are certainly excited for. “I’m really happy they only get 48 hours too,” Treese said with a laugh describing his opposition and having to prepare for them in just in two days. “I’m sure they were watching the game also so there’s going to be a whole lot of coaches trying to play chess and not so much checkers,” Treese said previewing Wednesday night’s clash. “It’s a game of matchups. They have some really good pieces and good things they can do offensively and defensively,” the Ephrata boss said of the impending challenge offered by the Crusaders. “My guys are confident and they have every reason to be confident. I think it’s going to come down to someone getting that matchup or someone exploiting something just a little bit better than the other team and that’s who’s going to end up on top.”
As far as Cedar Crest is concerned, the bid for a league title is now off the board but make no mistake about it, there is still a lot left out there for the Falcons yet to tackle. First and foremost, Cedar Crest will have to right the ship before next Friday night as they welcome an LL Section 1 foe back to The Cage in either Manheim Township or Conestoga Valley after those two square next Tuesday evening at Township. And should the Falcons get past either the Streaks or the Buckskins on the 23rd, Cedar Crest will find themselves right back inside the palatial confines of the Giant Center against more than likely the defending 6A state champions, the Reading Red Knights. And while it may take some time for Cedar Crest to rebound following the bitter taste left in their mouth from their Monday night defeat at the hands of Ephrata, the Falcons have consistently proven to be one of the grittier, hard-nosed, no-nonsense teams that reside in the LL, making their ability to rise up off the canvas all but a certain.