For any team, the goal of reaching the postseason is likely the one desired outcome that resides above all others before heading off on a season-long journey. And should a team be able to accomplish said goal and secure one of those precious bids into the playoffs, chances are that they want to be playing their best ball of the season heading into the precarious rounds of “survive and advance.” Well, as far as the Garden Spot Spartans and Columbia Crimson Tide were concerned, that theme heading into the league playoffs just so happened to ring true in spades.
In terms of the Lancaster-Lebanon League this season, you’d be hard-pressed to find a victory much more impressive over the course of the previous two months than the one the Spartans were able to put together on Tuesday night. After all, they were able to accomplish something that literally no one else in the L-L League had been able to do up until that point—- Beat Lampeter-Strasburg.
On that memorable night just five days ago, Senior Night as a matter of fact in New Holland, Garden Spot was able to halt the mighty Pioneers from accomplishing a season-long sweep of league competition at the final stop of their journey. All things considered, it was an incredible feat given the magnitude of it all, as the Spartans were able to successfully fend off a valiant L-S effort to prevail 63-57 in double overtime, knocking the Pioneers from their lofty perch of being the lone unbeaten team in L-L play.
But their competition on Friday night would serve as anything but a victory lap.
In terms of finishing the year strong, there were not many teams around the L-L League that authored a much better close to the regular season campaign than that of Columbia. Speaking just on the topic of Section 5 play, the Crimson Tide were able close the season out on a three-game winning streak, which brought everything to a head on Tuesday night with their trip to Lancaster Mennonite and a Section 5 title up for grabs. And while the Blazers would ultimately fend off a gutsy effort for the fast-rising Crimson Tide by virtue of a 74-71 final decision, attention had been served that this Columbia team will not only be a force to be reckoned with for years to come, but this year yet as well.
Sure enough, it was a lesson that Garden Spot was about find out about on Friday night at Warwick in the opening round of the Lancaster-Lebanon League playoffs.
Once the game ultimately got underway, both the Tide and the Spartans had a hard time establishing a rhythm and flow early on. In fact, the first score of the contest did not come until the 5:42 mark of the first quarter after a sweet steal and layup from Garden Spot senior point guard, Keontae Nunn, giving the white-clad Spartans the early 2-0 cushion.
And whether it be a case of the nerves, or just a slow start in general, Columbia would also have an equally hard time filling it up in the early stages of Friday night’s opening round tilt. For the Crimson Tide, the early dry spell would finally cease with 4:30 left in the opening period, thanks to a smooth pullup jumper knocked down by Crimson Tide freshman guard, Kerry “Hov” Glover, getting the Crimson Tide on the board once and for all.
But for as cold as both teams had started out while being plagued with cold shooting and a shared-bout with the pesky turnover bug, both the Tide and Spartans would end up find up finding their groove and then some to close out the opening period of play.
For the Garden Spot, the Spartans leaned on the supreme efforts put forth by Keontae Nunn for the duration of the first quarter, a feat that seemingly comes up on a nightly basis for the group from New Holland, as Nunn showed all in attendance why he is arguably the most exciting player in the Lancaster-Lebanon League by exploding for 10 first quarter points to give the Spartans the slim edge.
The key word there? Slim.
Even with Nunn putting a show with a series of lay-ins and dribbling exhibitions that could have made even the most mentally tough of squads get overcome with frustration, the Crimson Tide refused to flinch the entire time. And ultimately to their credit, the Crimson Tide were able to see themselves command the scoreboard for the first time after a Michael Poole 3-ball which gave Columbia the 12-11 lead with 1:45 left to tick off the first quarter clock.
But in many ways, Josiah Snader’s bucket from close range to close the first quarter out — a hoop from the Spartans’ 6’2 sophomore which knotted things up at 13-13 — should have served as a precursor of the events yet to unfold.
If one would have been forced to point to one thing above all else that allowed Columbia to get their groove back after being held scoreless for nearly half of the opening quarter, it would unequivocally be the Crimson Tide’s ability to fill it up from bonus distance. And once the second quarter got underway, it only proved to be more of the same.
In terms of the one doing most of the damage, those honors would be bestowed upon Michael Poole Jr, as the Columbia sophomore was able to knock down a handful of timely triples to aid the Crimson Tide effort in the early going on Friday evening. To be sure, Poole was able to pick up right where he left off in the first quarter by knocking down yet another long-range bomb, giving Columbia their largest lead of the night at 16-13 after the Crimson Tide’s first trip down the floor once the second quarter began.
But as the second stanza wore along, it quickly became apparent that Poole’s shooting prowess proved to be contagious for all other participants that shared the floor.
While beset with their first early dose of adversity after bearing witness to the Crimson Tide pour in a series of back-breaking triples in the early going on Friday night, Garden Spot would also turn to the long-ball well in order to find a spark and help quell the mounting Crimson Tide storm. Sure enough, the Spartans were promptly and justly rewarded for doing exactly that as Garden Spot sophomore Matt Sharp was able to knock down a triple of his own, bringing the Spartans back within a point at 18-17 with five minutes and change left to tick off the first half clock.
However, stellar three-point shooting only continued to aid the Crimson Tide’s cause for the remainder of the half.
Following the Sharp trifecta for Garden Spot, Columbia proceeded to close the half on an 8-2 run, thanks in large part to yet another triple, this one splashed in from 6’4 sophomore Brady Smith, helping propel the Crimson Tide into the halftime recess with possession of the 26-19 advantage at the break.
Yet for as well as Columbia had to be feeling given their emphatic close to the opening half, the Crimson Tide were about to discover that one Garden Spot team had gone into the locker room, only to see a completely different version of the Spartans remerge coming out of the tunnel to begin the second half.
It wouldn’t take the Spartans very long to answer back. In fact, after a Keontae Nunn 5-0 salvo, the Spartans found themselves even once again at 28-28 as the third quarter got underway. But to their credit, this young Crimson Tide group, most of which were currently experiencing their first playoff game of any substance, quickly retaliated with a poise and moxie atypical of such an inexperienced crew.
After spotting the Spartans the early second half flurry, Columbia regained their composure and the lead once again as a result, eventually going back in front by four at 34-30 after a 3-ball buried by, you guessed it, Michael Poole Jr. Shortly thereafter, the Crimson Tide continued to live large behind the arc as the third quarter wound down once more, eventually going up by five at 37-32 after a triple dialed up by 5’9 freshman guard Robert Footman, as the Crimson Tide now found themselves just eight minutes away from making the first significant splash of this year’s league playoffs.
Or so they thought.
As had been the case all evening long, neither the Crimson Tide nor the Spartans would let either side run away and hide, especially with the game now riding firmly on the line. Factually speaking, the largest the lead would swell to on either side in the fourth period was a five-point cushion in favor of Columbia, as a Luis Cruz theft and layup put the Crimson Tide in front at 41-36 with just 1:53 left to play.
Ironically, just as he had done to start the game, Keontae Nunn proved to be the straw which would stir the Garden Spot drink in crunch time as well. On both ends of the floor no less.
With the Crimson Tide clinging to the slim 41-39 advantage with just one a minute left to play in regulation, Nunn completed his best handiwork of the night, drawing a five-second call defensively on the Columbia ballhandlers, giving the ball back to the Spartans with 58.8 to go. And after a wild scrum featuring back-to-back rapid turnovers by either side with time winding down, Nunn would ultimately find himself toeing the charity stripe with 23.7 seconds left in regulation facing a one-and-one situation with the Spartans down by a pair. So, with the game hanging in the balance, Nunn delivered with back-to-back fearless freebies to knot things back up at 41-41, giving the Crimson Tide one last gasp at the chance to snag a walk-off style victory.
Ultimately however, the last-second Columbia shot bounced cruelly off the rim, sending this already sensational contest into a deserving session of extra time.
And wouldn’t you know it, Keontae Nunn would once again prove to be the catalyst which sparked the Spartans coming out of the chute to start the overtime period.
After Nunn was able to get his mitts on the loose pill which secured the turnover in favor of the Spartans, fellow senior Matt Sharp proved to be the beneficiary of Nunn’s hustle play, scoring a hard-earned put-back through contact to put the Spartans up by a deuce at 43-41 to get things underway in the newly-added frame.
But just as they had all game long, Columbia refused to fold up the tents and head home when going got tough.
With momentum starting to tilt ever-so dangerously in favor of the Spartans once the overtime got going, Michael Poole Jr was there to come up a timely take to the rack, as the heady sophomore’s fearless bucket made things all square once again at 43-43. On the night, Poole Jr would go on to finish with team-high scoring honors, finishing with a workmanlike 19-point effort to aid the Columbia cause.
Over the course of the remaining minutes of overtime, Columbia and Garden Spot would play to a stalemate. Ultimately however, the window of opportunity would open for one team. And once it did, the winds of fortune came rushing in for the Crimson Tide.
With just 11.1 seconds left to go, Columbia junior forward Ryan Redding found himself on the foul line with the score all even at 43-43. No matter. With ice pumping through his veins, Redding proceeded to knock down the offering, putting the Crimson Tide up 45-43 with the Spartans having to navigate the length of the floor with no time left to waste.
And with the shoe now being on the other foot, the magnitude and enormity of the situation proved to be no matter for Garden Spot as well.
With the Spartans hustling down the floor needing any sort of bucket to either play on or go home as winners, a frantic offensive set ultimately saw the ball wind up in the hands of Matt Sharp who was standing at point-blank range. And with the clock ticking furiously down, the Garden Spot senior was able to finish through the Crimson Tide tall trees to beat the buzzer just in time, sending the Spartans and Crimson Tide into yet another period of overtime with things tied up at 45-45.
In many ways, the start of the second overtime saw many of the same themes repeat themselves from its earlier predecessor.
Yet again, the Spartans were able to come out of the gates firing by scoring the period’s first field goal thanks to a timely bucket from 5’11 senior Austin Skowood, only to see their cushion eventually dry up and evaporate after a steal and finish capped off by Columbia’s Luis Cruz to knot things back up at 47-47.
So, with time winding down on yet another overtime period and neither team able to generate anything in the way of separation from one another, the opportunity to become a hero was ripe for the picking should someone be able to ascend and make a game-saving play for their team. And right at that very moment, it most certainly appeared to be Columbia’s Luis Cruz.
While the Crimson Tide sophomore wing may not have had the most glitzy and glamorous of nights as evidenced by his seven-point effort, Columbia would have in no way found themselves continuing to battle Garden Spot tooth and nail down the stretch had it not been the consistent efforts authored from Cruz all game long. And right on cue, Cruz made yet another unsung play with the game on the line, securing the offensive board off a missed foul shot to extend a late-game offensive possession for the Crimson Tide. Once the Cruz-saved possession ultimately did reach its conclusion, it found Robert Footman toeing the line with 50.9 left to go. And with the game hanging in the balance, Footman calmly sank both of his freebies, putting the Crimson Tide up by a pair at 50-48 with the Spartans needing to answer.
But this time however, the Spartans would come up empty, sending Footman back to the foul line with the chance to extend the Crimson Tide lead with now under 30 seconds left to tick off the clock. Sure enough, the Columbia freshman guard would be able to do just that, splitting the pair to add his 15-point showing on the night, but more importantly, extending the Tide lead out to three at 51-48.
So, with time of the essence, someone for Garden Spot needed to step up. Enter none other than Jesse Martin to center stage.
With Keontae Nunn sidelined while battling an ongoing case of the cramps after giving it everything he had, the Crimson Tide likely found themselves in a predicament regarding who had now become the Spartans’ number one option with Nunn now off the floor. But in this instance, #12 found himself become Garden Spot’s #1 as Martin worked himself free in the corner before firing in an enormous, cold-blooded triple mere moments before the final horn, sending Garden Spot and Columbia head-first into yet another series of added basketball with everything all square at 51-51, as the Garden Spot faithful in attendance raised the decibel level inside Warwick’s gymnasium to volumes akin to that of a jet-engine.
And wouldn’t you know it, the same thing familiar theme from the previous two overtimes played itself out in the third frame as well.
Just when Garden Spot had likely found themselves owning the momentum following a pretty spin move inside by the towering presence of 6’7 junior forward Andrew Zentner following the game-saving heroics of Jesse Martin just moments earlier, the Crimson Tide came right back in the face of the Spartans’ pendulum swing to start the extra frame as a pair of Robert Footman free throws made things all square once again at 53-53 to cap the Tide’s immediate retaliation.
But as is so typical in games such as the one which had developed on Friday night, those which often skirt the fine-line between pure elation and crushing disappointment, free throw shooting more often times than not often serves as the ultimate decider. This night too would be no different.
Following a sensational rejection at the cup from Andrew Zentner, who seemingly came out of nowhere to negate the would-be Crimson Tide shot attempt with Garden Spot holding the slim 54-53 advantage, Garden Spot guard Joe Sharp found himself with an opportunity to extend the Spartans’ lead with 1:21 left to play in the third overtime. Yet even the magnitude of the situation would not phase the young sophomore as Sharp knocked down the offering to make it a 56-53 affair in favor of the Spartans with time now winding down on the Tide.
Unfortunately for the contingent who traveled eastward into Lititz, their Crimson Tide would come up empty on their ensuing possession, sending Jesse Martin to the line with the opportunity to up the Spartans’ lead even further. And while Martin was only able to split the pair, Matt Sharp was able to come up with the gigantic offensive rebound for the Spartans to save the day, or at least the moment, for the Garden Spot troops.
So, with 19.8 seconds left to go in the third overtime period, another Garden Spot sophomore found himself toeing the foul line late with the opportunity to help the Spartans’ cause. Fittingly, Joe Sharp was able to follow in the footsteps of so many of his fellow Spartan brethren by knocking down a timely free throw, extending the Garden Spot lead out to what felt like an insurmountable five-point barrier at 58-53 with just a handful of seconds left.
Yet just when it had seemed like Garden Spot would be able to stave off the Columbia and finally exhale before boarding the bus back to New Holland, Michael Poole Jr had other ideas for the Crimson Tide by coming up with a Herculean old-fashioned three-point play to get Columbia back within a deuce at 58-56 with just 9.4 left to go.
This time however, Garden Spot was able to not only slam the door on the Crimson Tide, but ultimately nail it shut as well, as a 2-2 trip to the foul line from Andrew Zentner allowed Garden Spot to finally wipe the last beads of sweat away from their foreheads and get out Lititz with an incredible 60-56 triple overtime triumph over Columbia in a game that both sides will remember for the rest of their lives.
“I don’t think we started off the best and I challenged them at halftime to fight,” an excited, yet exhausted first-year Garden Spot head coach Nate Musselman offered in the glow of his team’s incredible victory late Friday night.
“In the first half, we were getting no 50/50 balls. That changed in the second half and it changed the game. It really did,” Musselman said. “Just us being the aggressive team helped us climb back into it and get us where we needed to be to set us up with a position to strike. That’s really what it was.”
Speaking of the word fight and never relenting when the chips were down, there was perhaps no better theme to encapsulate the Spartans and the week they had just put the finishing touches on. After all, it was a week that saw Garden Spot go a perfect 2-0, while playing in a total of five overtime periods no less, to help them reach such an esteemed status.
“I challenged them on Tuesday to fight,” said Musselman harkening back to the pregame message offered to his troops on Tuesday night prior to taking on the Lancaster-Lebanon League beast known as Lampeter-Strasburg. “I said, ‘We are going to fight them.’ For the most part on Tuesday, we did. I felt like we didn’t in the first half tonight. That’s why I challenged them again at halftime tonight.”
“A win like we had on Tuesday has to catapult us. I felt like we took a step back in the first half and then we started to take steps forward,” said the Spartans’ head man.
“When you let a team like Columbia hang around, they are going to scratch, fight and claw. That’s what happens. The other thing is, this is playoff basketball. None of my kids really experienced that very much. It’s a bit of learning curve,” Musselman added with a good-natured laugh.
But perhaps what was most impressive to those that had the good fortune of watching these two worthy combatants battle it out over the course of what had now become 44 minutes of unrelenting action, it was the fact that several Spartans proceeded to take the baton and run full-bore with it when their senior floor-general, Keontae Nunn, found himself sitting down for a majority of the last two overtimes while battling leg cramps. And while that was certainly impressive in terms of the basketball perspective of it all, it was what happened in the locker room after the game that stood out above all else to Musselman.
“I was most proud that #20 (Keontae Nunn) stood up in that locker room and called his teammates out for picking him up. I can say anything I want, but when the kids are doing it and they buy in like that, that’s what I want,” Musselman proudly stated.
“That means way more to your teammates when that happens than what I can ever say to them. I was very proud of that.”
NEXT UP: Speaking proud, especially for a coach that values the efforts of his team on the defensive end such as Coach Musselman does, the fact that the Spartans yielded a grand total of only 56 points through three overtimes on Friday night certainly says a lot about the focus the Spartans are sure to have the rest of the way. However, that theme only grows with intense fervor when you consider that the Spartans will get set to tackle yet another goliath placed in front of them on Monday night when Garden Spot lines up against Manheim Township in the quarterfinal round of the L-L playoffs.
“I told them before this playoff run that no matter what happens, if we just play defense, we’ll be okay,” the freshly-minted victorious playoff coach detailed. “But we have to take care of the ball,” he added quickly.
“If we turn the ball over like that on Monday night, we all know what’s going to happen. We can’t do that on Monday. So, we’ll go after (Manheim Township). We’re going to play defense and let’s see what happens on the offensive end,” Musselman said of the upcoming task ahead before quipping, “Hopefully we can get Keontae hydrated over the weekend.”
For Columbia, although Friday night was unquestionably disappointing given the fact that the Crimson Tide undoubtedly emptied their collective tanks before coming up just short, it was a coming of age game for a cast of Crimson Tide characters that are sure to find themselves playing on this very stage and beyond for the next handful of years. Fortunately the Crimson Tide and their always-supportive faithful, the wait for their next crack at an opportunity in the playoffs is only a week away as Columbia finds themselves entering next week’s District 3-3A field as the #7 seed with a likely trip to the #2 seed, Camp Hill, on the upcoming horizon for this rapidly-improving Crimson Tide group that is eager to make an even bigger splash on the mid-state scene starting next week.