While Thursday night around the Lancaster-Lebanon League may not have produced the largest of schedules, that certainly did not mean that the abbreviated docket was not short in its ability to produce a fair share of intriguing storylines and matchups to help tantalize the palate. But perhaps the one that stood out above all the rest? None other than Garden Spot’s trip to Denver to tangle with Cocalico.
Aside from the fact that both the Eagles and the Spartans came into Thursday night’s throw down jostling for a position in the L-L League playoffs as the likely second-place finisher in Section 3, both Garden Spot and Cocalico were also seen jostling for the final spot in the District 3 5A playoffs as well with the Spartans coming in as the 12th seed, while the home-standing Eagles entered the ring as the 14th seed. Why is that important to consider? District 3 only hands out 16 invitations to their exclusive postseason party. And if that already wasn’t enough given the magnitude of what was at stake, there was the added element of payback that likely entered in the equation given Cocalico’s 52-50 overtime triumph in New Holland just two weeks ago.
And whether it be quest for redemption or just simply a case of executing at an extraordinarily high level, Garden Spot opened the contest as the clear and unquestioned aggressor.
In fact, the Spartans wasted little time in jumping out a sizable lead on their hosts, going in front 6-2 after a successful 2-2 trip to the charity stripe from 6’2 sophomore guard Jesse Sharp through the first 2:10 of action.
Unfortunately for Cocalico, the Eagles’ assignment of scratching and clawing their way back into shouting distance of the Spartans throughout the duration of the first quarter was hindered significantly by a devastating bout of stone-cold shooting from the field. And while plagued with the inability to simply knock down some key early shots, the visitors from New Holland were able to extend their lead as the first quarter trudged along, eventually seeing back-to-back specular turnaround go down from their marvelous senior point guard, Keontae Nunn, which sent the Spartans into the second stanza with the eye-popping 15-2 advantage after a resounding eight minutes of basketball.
To their credit, while the first quarter was without question absolutely owned by Garden Spot, the home-standing Eagles tried to begin the second quarter with a rally of their own, eventually cutting the Spartans’ lead in half at 16-8 following two consecutive hoops by way of 6’6 junior swingman, Ben Karbe.
From that point on however, the second quarter would quickly mirror the events which had preceded it. That is of course, more of the same aggression displayed by Garden Spot.
After witnessing Cocalico chip away at their lead in the early portion of the second period, the Spartans proceeded to go right back on the attack, eventually answering back with a 4-0 blitz of their own following the Karbe buckets, eventually upping their lead back to a dozen at 20-8 after a Jesse Martin bucket which triggered an immediate Cocalico timeout with 4:51 left in the opening half. But the timeout would do little to stop the oncoming Garden Spot onslaught. In fact, over the course of nearly the next three minutes of game action, the Spartans were able to see their lead swell to 14 at 24-10 after a splendid Andrew Zentner reverse at the cup, prompting yet another Eagles’ timeout with now 2:00 minutes left to go in the opening half. However, that wouldn’t be the last of it as far as Cocalico was concerned as the Spartans would close the first half off with a vengeance. And perhaps nothing best exemplified that more than a Keontae Nunn NBA 3-ball right before the first half horn, a timely bucket which sent Garden Spot sprinting into the intermission with the commanding 30-13 advantage.
Unfortunately for Cocalico, Keontae Nunn came out with even more fire to begin the second half.
While clearly sparked by his memorable first half performance which saw Garden Spot’s diminutive, yet fearless leader reach double figures with a 10-point effort, Nunn only continued to sizzle in the opening moments of the second half by going on his own personal 6-0 run, effectively putting Garden Spot up by 23 points with no more than a minute having expired off the third quarter clock.
From that point on however, Garden Spot’s reign of terror on Thursday night would start to come to an end.
Needing a basket, any basket, in order to quell the storm which had currently besieged them, Cocalico 6’4 senior forward Brady Nuneville was able to knock down a timely and desperately-needed jumper in the lane, making it a 38-15 contest through the first three minutes of the third. From there, 6’1 sophomore guard Carter Nuneville took his turn driving the Eagles’ machine by turning in a 5-0 salvo of his own, only to see Ben Karbe finish the third quarter off with a dramatic theft and subsequent two-handed dunk down on the offensive end to help usher Cocalico into the final period trailing 38-24, yet owning all the precious momentum.
And with newfound energy now clearly residing on their bench, the Eagles started to feast.
All in all, it had to seem pretty incredible to those in attendance. Just a few minutes earlier, Cocalico was staring up at a 23-point deficit. Now, after a key Connor Mack early fourth quarter triple, the Eagles suddenly found themselves within single digits at 41-33 with 4:30 left to play. But the Eagles were far more than a one-trick pony during this ongoing run. In fact, after the Mack 3-ball, Cocalico 6’4 junior forward Trey Griffin was there to put his stamp on the action, contributing a splendid bucket from point-blank range to get the Eagles within six at 41-35, with the gym seemingly coming apart at the seams with ear-shattering decibel levels of excitement. So, with the inside/outside mix now clearly working in their favor, Ben Karbe decided to step back outside the arc and drain a key trifecta, his first of two on the night, officially making it white-knuckle affair with Garden Spot clinging to the 44-40 lead with just 1:04 left to play.
But as is the case so often with a game on the line, the outcome almost always will ultimately be determined by foul shooting. In that regard, hang a big check mark to Garden Spot’s name as it relates to Thursday evening.
With his team likely starting to waver given the incredible momentum-shift that was currently taking place, Jesse Martin proceeded to toe the line with 57.2 left to go, calmly knocking down both, triumphantly putting the Spartans back on top by a half dozen at 46-40. Even still, the Spartans were not out of the woods just yet.
Following the 2-2 offering cashed in Martin, Ben Karbe proceeded to come right the floor and fire in his second triple of the evening, slicing the Garden Spot lead in half at 46-43. And wouldn’t you know it, yet another Garden Spot sophomore would have the immediate answer as another 2-2 trip to the line, this time from Joe Sharp, successfully put the Spartans back up by five at 48-43, making a Cocalico rebuttal of the utmost importance.
Unfortunately for the Eagles, their ensuing offensive possession would come up dry, sending Keontae Nunn to the other end of the floor after the immediate foul, with Nunn being able to show great poise as well as evidenced by his 2-2 trip for freebies with just 23.8 left to play.
Yet with so much riding on the line in this one, you had to imagine that Cocalico would leave absolutely everything out of the floor. Sure enough, they would as a vital Trey Griffin hoop plus the harm down on the offensive end would cut the Spartans’ lead back down to three at 50-47. And while the ensuing foul shot would come up empty, Garden Spot was still tasked with the responsibility of closing this one out at the foul line once again. Unfortunately for the Garden Spot contingent that had made the trip to Denver, they would then see their Spartans fail to come up with anything at the line on this trip, giving the ball back to Cocalico with 13.7 left to go while holding on to the 50-47 lead.
And while the Eagles appeared to have plenty of time left to draw up their best three-point play or perhaps get a lightning-quick deuce instead, Cocalico’s game-deciding possession would be thwarted by the pesky Garden Spot defense, only to see a Spartans’ foul take place with 1.1 left which sent Carter Nuneville to line facing a one-and-one scenario while down by three. On his first, Nuneville looked like the coolest customer in the now hush gymnasium as he promptly sank his first attempt. But with such little time, Nuneville would be forced to miss the second in hopes of seeing an Eagle teammate clean the offensive glass with enough time to attempt a put-back of their own. Unfortunately for the Cocalico faithful, that dream would not come to pass as the Spartans were able to secure the defensive rebound, giving them the tremendous 50-48 hard-fought triumph over a more than resilient Cocalico squad.
“I’m just so proud,” a jubilant Garden Spot head coach Nate Musselman said afterwards. “That first half, you couldn’t have asked for anything better being on the road and having a huge start to the game.”
Now sure, the first half definitely got the Spartans started off on the right foot, but Musselman and his troops knew better than to expect things to continue that way in the second half while being free from resistance all night long.
“We said at halftime, (Cocalico) is too good and they are not going to roll over,” the first-year head man implored to his group at the break. “Give them credit. They play hard. That’s what they do,” Musselman added while lauding the fight put forth by the Eagles. “It’s almost like you feel bad winning that game tonight because they won the first one which was one of the greatest high school games that I’ve been a part of.”
“I told them in the locker room that this a huge program-win for us. Just to be a part of that and excel with sophomores making free throws at the end of the game, I couldn’t be more proud. And quite frankly of their team too,” said Musselman. “We respect the heck out of Coach Sigman and what he does over there.”
And as far as handling that playoff-like atmosphere inside such a raucous environment? You better believe it was all business.
“What we did was focus on the defensive end,” Musselman stated. “Every timeout, we just kept saying, ‘Everything starts on the defensive end.’ From there, we’ll go, but you have to get stops on the defensive end and hold them to one shot and done. From there, the levity of the game doesn’t matter because we’re getting stops. If we get stops, the game gets easy. We just kept it simple like that and the kids bought into it.”
Ironically enough, having a business-like approach to this week in general was paramount for Garden Spot. Yes, they were well-aware of how big Thursday night’s affair in Denver would be, but it would certainly lose its luster had they dropped their games on Monday and Tuesday to Lebanon and Solanco respectively. And if you were wondering, the Spartans had successfully packed their briefcases for both of those games, as evidenced by their triumphs over the Cedars and Golden Mules by a combined 23 points heading into Thursday evening.
“Our goal this week was to get to 3-0. We have a four-game week starting on Monday, Tuesday, and now tonight. We just had small week-goals,” Garden Spot’s boss remarked. “1-0 for Monday, 2-0 for Tuesday. To try and take the levity off this game, it was that this was the next game in our 3-0 goal. I felt like they responded to that.”
NEXT UP: From here, Garden Spot will look to keep this train flying down the tracks as they fully intended to accomplish that perfect 4-0 week when the Spartans travel up to Berks County to match up with one of the best in the District 3-6A landscape, the Wilson Bulldogs. But make no mistake about it, Coach Mussleman and his group are already chomping at the bit to get a crack at such an esteemed program.
“Now we have to go to Wilson on Saturday,” Musselman said with forward-thinking. “I don’t plan on going there and just rolling over. That’s not the makeup of our team. I don’t care who they are, we’re going to play hard.”
For Cocalico, the Eagles will also look to put the disappointment of Thursday night aside as they prepare for a nonleague Saturday roadtrip of their own, traveling across the Susquehanna into York County to match up with Red Lion.