Black Knights Display Their Mettle As Hempfield Comes From Behind, Vanquishes Lebanon In Thrilling Crossover Contest

Written by: on Wednesday, January 19th, 2022

 

If we can, let’s go back to last year just for a moment. I know, I know. As much as I myself would rather not revisit a year ago any more than you likely would either — probably because you may not have even been allowed to see a game in-person last year at all — it’s not as if last year’s records should be on the receiving-end of some sort of asterisk and get shoved away into a closet somewhere only to sit and collect dust. At least, that’s certainly not what neither the Hempfield Black Knights nor Lebanon Cedars are hoping happens no doubt.

For as strange, bizarre, wonky, weird, insert your adjective of choice here, the world of Lancaster-Lebanon League boys’ basketball went on pretty much like normal. Yes, while there was a significant cut into the number of teams allowed to gain entry in the league tournament bracket and other similar changes of the like, the seemingly age-old theme of seeing either a Section One or Section Two team eventually find its way through the field before finally reaching the league final ended up rearing its head right back to the surface once again. Of course, if you remember, both divisions ended up snatching both of those two sought-after tickets as Hempfield and Lebanon ended up playing yet another great game that will surely go into the annals of memorable league championship games seeing as the Cedars eventually prevailed by way of a thrilling 41-40 victory in a game that literally wasn’t decided until the very last second of play.

Fittingly, in either a cruel or just way – depending on your rooting interest – both the Knights’ and Cedars’ next game would be against one another a few days later once the District 3-6A playoffs rolled around. This time, not even the Cedars’ seemingly impenetrable home floor would be enough to stave off this determined Hempfield squad as the Black Knights ended up getting the payback they so dearly sought, prevailing in a 62-58 decision that wasn’t decided until the final seconds as well, this time thanks in large part to a Titanic-sized offensive rebound by way of Michael Hester on a missed free throw attempt that eventually allowed the Black Knights to this time salt the game away by way of the charity stripe, effectively slamming the door on the Cedars’ stellar season just mere hours after they had reached the highest of highs.

And with so many key figures entering back into the fray, including quite arguably the best backcourt in the entire league given the duo of Luke Collins and Marquis Ferreira respectively, aspirations and hopes were equally high once again for the Cedars before entering this campaign as well. Of course, that is to say if you can also keep that nasty and unforgiving injury bug away from your camp too.

However, unfortunately for the Cedars, their season got hit with a big-time body blow before the year itself could even get started given the cruel and painful news that came out in the fall that the aforementioned Luke Collins would have to sit out his senior season due to an injury. Then, given the loss of arguably the best pure point guard that the entire L-L League had to offer, the preseason hype machine that was centered on the Cedars seemed to have died down somewhat you also factored into the equation that the best big man in the league last season, Isaiah Rodriguez, would also be gone due to graduation.  

The only problem? It seems as if nobody bothered to tell the Cedars any of that. At least not thus far that is.

It’s funny in some ways. In what world would a defending league champion who was widely-believed to quite possibly be the preseason favorite at the start of the school year also be labeled as one of the great surprises throughout the first month of the actual season? Well, humorous or not, here the Cedars stood once again at the top of L-L Section Two standings heading into their highly-anticipated crossover rematch with Hempfield on Tuesday back on their home floor with a 4-1 record within the league and a 9-3 mark overall, seemingly unphased by who or what anyone on the outside may felt about them. Suffice to say, it’s rather apparent that the sum of the Cedars’ collective parts is far greater than even the most esteemed savants could have possibly predicted. And when you get right down to it, is there anything more poetic and “Lebanon” than both of those two things working in tandem with one another?

Of course, even if Lebanon was projected to be at the top of the league, Hempfield would likely be nipping right at their heels. Sure enough, that was indeed the case heading into the week.

Talk about an interesting last couple weeks for the Black Knights. After seeming to take on the look of a unit that almost seemed to be untouchable from afar, Hempfield would stub its toe to a drastically underrated E-Town squad for its first loss of the season before returning home a few days later and dropping their second consecutive game in a somewhat surprising home loss at the hands of McCaskey in that storied rivalry’s latest chapter. Then, after getting tested by another undervalued team, Ephrata, following a surprising 0-2 stretch, the Black Knights more than had a flair for the dramatics this past Friday night as a Michael Rieker bucket at the final gun gave Hempfield the thrilling 57-55 victory against one of Section Two’s other notable names, Warwick, in a game that may finally gotten the Black Knights back on the right path so to speak. That said, both they and the league at large would surely learn a lot more about Hempfield come about the 9 o’clock hour on Tuesday night once their game against Lebanon figured to reach a final verdict by that point in time.

And just like the previous two matchups between these two from just one year ago, this too would turn out to be another white-knuckle affair as well.

In the early going on Tuesday night, one thing became abundantly clear—that being that buckets would be hard to come by. Case in point, the Black Knights’ frontline negating a grand total of five would-be Lebanon shots around the rim throughout the opening eight minutes of play, effectively sending the Cedars the message that scoring may have very well been a chore far easier said than actually done. However, that notion seemed to go up in smoke as it were throughout the middle portions of the opening frame seeing as how the hosts would eventually sprint out to an 8-2 advantage at the 2:18 mark of the quarter, prompting Hempfield to call a timeout in the face of the Cedars’ current onslaught.

That said, the hits for the visitors only kept on coming following the brief respite as a 3-ball knocked down by way of senior guard, Adrian Cruz, a trifecta which capped off his own personal 5-0 rally, upped the Lebanon lead to an 11-2 count before a timely and much-needed answer inside on the ensuing Hempfield trip down the floor by Friday night’s hero, Michael Rieker, cut the Cedars’ cushion down to an 11-4 gap which is exactly where things would remain once the opening stanza eventually reached its conclusion.

In the second quarter though, Hempfield was finally able to shake themselves free somewhat from their offensive constraints placed upon them by the Cedars’ defensive effort by later racing back to within shouting distance.

Granted, while the Cedars would first seeing their lead climb up into double figures at 15-4 in the opening minute of play following a tough bucket inside authored by senior big man, Nate Diaz, the Black Knights would be able to chip away at the Cedars’ cushion from there, eventually getting back within a half dozen following a triple cashed in by junior point guard, Miguel Pena, making it a 15-9 contest with 5:20 left to play before the halftime break. Later, another Black Knights’ longball, this one sunk by senior guard, Parker Wolfe, allowed Hempfield to get within five at 17-12 roughly one minute later.

And while Lebanon would be able to push Hempfield away somewhat with a much-needed trey courtesy of Cruz, another Pena triple in his own right –good for three more en route to his game-high 20-point outing- trimmed the Cedars’ lead back down to size at 20-15 with one-minute left in the period. As it turned out, that would be all the closer Hempfield would get for the remainder of the first half though as the final minute would later expire with Lebanon being able to add onto their lead somewhat as the Cedars went into the intermission with the touchdown advantage at 22-15, thanks in large part to a sensational defensive effort collectively that definitively had thrown Hempfield all out of whack throughout the opening 16 minutes of play.

Yet while one Hempfield team entered the halftime locker room beset by offensive difficulties, quite another unit had emerged once the second half rolled around, or so it had appeared.

For proof of that, look to Hempfield clawing back to within their closest deficit since the opening minutes of the contest following a triple dialed up by junior forward, Michael Hester, that not only allowed the key cog in the Black Knights’ rotation to score his first points of the evening, it also more importantly made it a 26-22 affair near the midway mark of the third stanza. Later, the Cedars’ game-long lead had suddenly been sliced all the way down to just a pair following a take to the cup by way of an up-and coming 6’4 sophomore wing, Ben Troyer, which made it a 28-26 Lebanon advantage with 3:40 left to go in the third.

Speaking of different teams rounding into form as it were, the Cedars would make quite the metamorphosis in their own right throughout the final three minutes and change of the third period as well.

After allowing their houseguests to gnaw away at their lead before getting back down to just a two-point difference, Lebanon would counter back with a key haymaker of their own. In fact, an impromptu 5-0 Cedars’ rally which was capped off by a bullish move inside thanks to senior forward, Kevin Smith, made it a 33-26 ballgame exactly two minutes following the aforementioned Troyer bucket for Hempfield. Speaking of Smith, while not only finishing as the Cedars’ leading scorer on the evening following a 16-point effort, he would prove to be the key catalyst throughout the remainder of the third frame, especially seeing as how his theft and layup shortly thereafter suddenly made it a 37-26 Lebanon lead with the third quarter clock rapidly evaporating. And while their gap wouldn’t quite remain at double digits for the final minute and change, the Cedars would still carry a sizable 37-29 lead with them heading into the final eight-minute round.

Finally, and not a moment too soon as far as they had to be concerned, the Black Knights finally began their final ascent.  

That said, the hill grew even steeper to climb at the onset of the frame considering yet another Kevin Smith bucket inside on the Cedars’ initial offensive possession of the quarter made it a 10-point bulge once again in favor of Lebanon, 39-29, before Hempfield roared right back into the thick of things.

As far as their weapon of choice was concerned, the Black Knights opted for the long-ball. In fact, following a pair of triples cashed in by Ben Troyer over a roughly 45-second span, Hempfield was able to cut that Lebanon lead in half seeing as how the sophomore’s most recent trifecta made it a 41-36 ballgame with 5:25 left to go at that point in time. However, with their proficiency from beyond the arc seeming to act as a contagion amongst their troops collectively, it was apropos to see both Parker Wolfe and Miguel Pena pop in a pair of triples amongst themselves, a six-point swing that ushered the Black Knights back within a deuce at 44-42 with three minutes now left to play. And in the most fitting of ways possible, Hempfield would finally find themselves out in front at long last by way of, you guessed it, a 3-ball, as a Troyer trifecta put the visitors out in front at 45-44 with a shade over two minutes left before the final gun.  

Speaking of fitting, an immediate Kevin Smith rebuttal down on the other end which capped off the Cedars’ ensuing possession put the hosts back in front, 46-45, within the blink of the eye. However, speaking of counterpunches, a coldblooded yet smooth pullup jumper sunk by Pena almost instantaneously put Hempfield back in front at 47-46. Then, following a Lebanon turnover, déjà vu likely set in for the Hempfield contingent.

To say that their previous two meetings with Lebanon were defined by what took place at the charity stripe within the final few seconds might not be doing it any semblance of justice. And wouldn’t you know it, Hempfield would find themselves toeing the foul line yet again inside the final few seconds on Tuesday night as well. This time, while staring down the barrel of a make-or-break one and one, Hempfield’s Miguel Pena calmly converted the offering, a pair of gigantic free throws which put the Black Knights up by three, 49-46, with 19.3 seconds left to play.

However, simply refusing to yield any sort of ground and needing to score, a Smith bucket from point-blank range just as quickly sliced the Hempfield lead back down to the absolute slimmest of margins, 49-48, with 7.7 seconds left to play. And after getting fouled once again following the inbounds, Pena proved himself to one cool customer once again with the game hanging in the balance as another successful one-and-one conversion upped the Hempfield advantage back to three at 51-48 with 6.2 seconds still to tick off the game clock.

From there, Hempfield would successfully utilize their final foul to give, forcing Lebanon into a side-out scenario with 3.3 seconds remaining. And for a night in which their offensive prowess finally helped push them over the proverbial hill with their impressive fourth quarter display, it would prove to be the Black Knights’ defense which would end up sealing the deal for good as the Cedars were forced into a fadeaway three at the final buzzer which would be off the mark, handing Hempfield the gritty 51-48 victory over a very game Lebanon squad in what may very well prove to be yet another playoff preview between these two worthy adversaries in just a few weeks’ time.

And yes, while this is a brand-new year that brings with it its own unique set of challenges and circumstances, you can best believe that Hempfield as a whole doesn’t forget what happened that Saturday afternoon at Manheim Township in the league championship last season. In fact, all you need to do is look at their wrists.

“They started it,” Hempfield head coach Danny Walck said of his players and their display of unity amongst one another through shared difficulty. And “it” is something that couldn’t be any simpler –The final score from that league title game against that bears out a simple yet painful reminder that they write with black marker on white athletic tape before each contest, 41-40. Of course, don’t be shocked if there might have been just a little bit more ink used than normal to inscribe the message on Tuesday evening given who the opponent happened to be.

“They started that back in the first game of the year. That tells me that they’re focused,” Walck said. “Here’s the other side of it though. You can wear it, but it’s like talking. You gotta walk the talk. We can do all these kinds of things and I believe in them, but what does that mean? It means execution and performance. They’ve been really good with it,” Walck added of his players making last year’s league title game a legitimate battle cry rather than some simple cosmetic exercise. “When it first happened, you wonder, ‘Is this just a flash in the pan?’ It’s not. They do that every single game. I think that’s good. That’s something we all have in common,” he added of last year’s defeat to Lebanon. “Nobody else but those guys in that locker room. That’s what this is all about. And it’s not to slight anybody, it’s to say, ‘I was there.’ There’s a couple guys that are playing right now that were in that locker room at Township and it hurt ‘em. That hurt ‘em bad. I’m proud of that. If it doesn’t hurt you, it doesn’t mean nothing. When they did this, and they laced that (final score) up, that meant something.”

And while it may be just one game and one win amidst a loaded for bear schedule, don’t find fault with Hempfield if this win in particular happens to be a tad sweeter than any of their others so far this season. After all, just look at their wrists.

 

NEXT UP: Suffice to say, Hempfield’s comeback victory against Lebanon was crucial for the Black Knights to try and keep pace with another Lebanon County foe, Cedar Crest, inside Section One given their previous two defeats at the hands of E-Town and McCaskey respectively that knocked them out of the pole position. From here, Hempfield will now round out the week by traveling to Conestoga Valley on Thursday night before taking a swing at a strong Mid-Penn foe, Central Dauphin, on Saturday at Manheim Central’s L-L vs. Mid-Penn Shootout.

“It’s a grind,” Walck said of the season as a whole. “People scout you and people want to beat you real bad. Then, we have a few bumps and bruises that we have to fight through too,” he added of his squad’s most recent stretch of games. “This is the toughest part of the schedule right now with so many games back-to-back-to-back-to-back. We talked about this too, but who knows what all else is going to come tomorrow? You gotta stay present and go again.”

As far as Lebanon is concerned, they too need to get right back on the horse come Friday night when travel down to Millersville to tangle with Penn Manor in the Cedars’ penultimate crossover contest remaining yet this season. Needless to say, in such a wide-open and up for grabs Section Two division narrative that has rang true all season long, Tuesday night alone proves as to why the margin for error is so incredibly slim inside that section. Case in point, while Lebanon began the night sitting all alone in the catbird’s seat, their defeat not only knocked the Cedars down into a tie with Warwick at the top of the heap for the current moment in time, it also put them just a game outside of a hard-charging E-Town Bears squad that is already nipping at their heels. Simply put, the frantic mad dash to the finish line inside Section Two over the final few weeks of the regular season for those two playoff bids will most certainly be appointment-viewing.

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