Hempfield Turns The Tables, Avenges League Title Loss As Black Knights Eliminate Lebanon In Nail-Biting District 3-6A Opener

Written by: on Thursday, March 4th, 2021

 

In some ways, when Hempfield and Lebanon matched up with one another in the opening round of the District 3-6A playoffs on Wednesday night, both the Black Knights and Cedars were in a no-win situation of sorts. After all, how in the world could they possibly top what was one of the best Lancaster-Lebanon League championship games in recent memory on Saturday afternoon, a 41-40 Lebanon victory which saw the Cedars ultimately prevail by way of a missed Hempfield free throw in the final second which proved to be the final difference of separation. Needless to say, Hempfield was more than likely chomping at the bit to get out and play right away once the final buzzer sounded at Manheim Township on Saturday and the Cedars ran off their bench in celebration in anticipation of receiving their gold medals. Ironically, and perhaps justly, the Black Knights’ first game right out of the chute just so happened to come against the Lebanon Cedars of all teams.

To put it mildly, Hempfield couldn’t have cared any less as to how the optics of Wednesday night would ultimately look in terms of whether or not Black Knights vs. Cedar Part II would prove to be just as exciting as the first matchup had been just four days earlier. The bottom line was that they just wanted to leave Lebanon happier than they did Neffsville. In the end, Hempfield’s wish would be completed. Thrilling game and all.

After having their collective hearts ripped out against the very same team, one had to wonder as to how Hempfield was going to respond once the ball was tipped off on Wednesday. In that regard, there wasn’t much to doubt.

Sparked by two nice buckets courtesy of 6’5 senior forward, Dan Sears, the visitors from Landisville saw their lead climb up to a 7-0 difference following a smooth 3-ball knocked down by their fast-rising star, 6’1 sophomore point guard, Miguel Pena. But the Knights weren’t done there. While the Cedars ultimately found their first bucket of the evening thanks to a hoop inside by their enforcer, senior forward, Isaiah Rodriguez, a pair of triples sunk down on the other end by Hempfield’s Michael Hester spelled doom for the homestanding Cedars as the Black Knights’ lead swelled out to a 13-2 difference shortly thereafter near the midway mark of the opening stanza.

Ultimately though, as all champions do, the Cedars found their stride.

After surrendering the early Hempfield salvo, Lebanon was able to battle back marvelously as the first quarter wound down to a close. Granted, while getting down double figures on your home floor against a team that was out for blood is certainly not the best way to go about things, the Cedars were able to steadily and consistently whittle the Knights’ lead down to size. Case in point, a pullup jumper sunk by junior forward, Kevin Smith, a bucket which cut the Hempfield back down to a half dozen at 15-9, which is there things would ultimately remain once the first quarter clock ran out.

Ironically, for as well as Hempfield had played throughout the opening stages of the first quarter on Wednesday, one had to think that Lebanon would already be tasked with expending a lot of energy in hopes of gradually trimming the sizable Black Knights’ lead down, especially given how methodical Hempfield likes to play on the offensive end. Well, you could have tossed that notion aside as the second quarter got underway.

After a pair of trifectas cashed in by Luke Collins and Braden Allwein respectively, the Cedars had suddenly found themselves back on level ground in almost no time at all, knotting things up at 15-15, forcing their guests to call an impromptu timeout with 6:20 left to play before intermission. Then, after drawing back even, the Cedars were able to surpass their Section One counterparts as a fearless three-point play junior guard, Marquis Ferreira, made it an 18-15 Cedars’ lead before a timely Brandon Hagel floater in the lane on the ensuing Hempfield offensive trip stopped the bleeding for the Black Knights. Speaking of Hagel, the 6’4 senior sniper was able to prove himself as an asset in the Black Knights’ rotation throughout the second quarter proceedings as one of his trademark triples gave the lead back to Hempfield once more, 23-21, with 2:08 left to go before halftime.

Then, after being held in check for the entirety of the first half up until that point, Hempfield’s Ryan Hilton was able to shake himself loose from the Cedars’ constraints.

While the Black Knights’ 6’1 senior guard typically inflicts his greatest amount of damage upon opponents in the second half of games –particularly in the fourth quarter—Lebanon had to likely feel a tad worrisome once the first half drew to a close considering that the waning moments of the second period saw Hilton cash in a pair of back-to-back buckets, perhaps allowing the Black Knights’ most clutch player to get into a dangerous groove, all while allowing Hempfield to head into the half with ownership of the 27-23 lead.

In the third quarter, the jabs thrown back and forth between the two sides only intensified.

While a Miguel Pena trifecta allowed the Black Knights to open the second half with a seven-point lead, a Luke Collins triple for Lebanon shortly thereafter sliced the Hempfield lead back down to four at 32-28 with two minutes having ticked off the third quarter clock. From there, while Hempfield was able to keep Lebanon at arm’s length thanks to a Michael Hester 3-ball which made it a 35-30 Black Knights’ lead, the Cedars roared right back scoring the next four points, capped off by a follow bucket from point-blank range by Kevin Smith, making it a 35-34 lead in favor of Hempfield. However, Pena was able to retaliate right back by showing off his moxie in the immediate aftermath by canning a pair of cold-blooded jumpers in successive fashion, upping the Hempfield lead to 39-34 with just over two minutes remaining in the frame. Speaking of the sophomore’s unquestioned mental fortitude, Pena was able to play well beyond his years on Wednesday night by finishing the evening by posting a game-high scoring output of 20 points once all was said and done.

But just as they had done time and time throughout, Lebanon came right back into the picture.

After seeing the Hempfield lead swell up to as many as six with the third quarter rapidly winding down, Lebanon’s Luke Collins was able to provide a boost of momentum for his fellow Cedar troops heading into the final eight minutes with a key triple to slice the Black Knights’ lead in half, 42-39, with yet another dramatic fourth quarter set to transpire between these two evenly matched foes.

Speaking of momentum, that’s precisely what the Cedars had, even with the respite in between quarters. For proof of that, look no further than Demetrius Matthew’s determined take to the rack in the opening stages of the fourth, a bucket which gave the lead back to Lebanon at 45-44, effectively kicking off what figured to be a frantic final period.

As mentioned though, Hempfield’s Ryan Hilton tends to save his best for last, usually scoring big bucket after big bucket down the final stretch to ultimately will his Black Knights’ team to victory. And wow, did that ever ring true in spades on Wednesday night.

With his team dancing on the edge of possibly seeing their season expire –and his Black Knight career for that matter— Hilton simply hasn’t having any of it. As the fourth quarter started to round into form, one thing became abundantly clear: Lebanon would have to contain Ryan Hilton if they wanted to stop Hempfield as a whole. In that regard, Hilton proved to be the cheat code with the game on the line given that he was able to tally three straight buckets inside the final quarter to aid the Black Knights’ cause, even despite the fact that an Isaiah Rodriguez bucket in the lane had put the Cedars out in front, 52-53, with the fourth quarter now past its halfway point. Speaking of the physically-imposing Cedar inside, Rodriguez went on to finish the night with a team-best 15-point outing to pace the Lebanon side.

From there, Lebanon was able to see their lead increase up to a pair at 56-54 following a triple knocked down Marquis Ferreira with 2:30 left to play. Again though, Hempfield was up for the fight as a Brandon Hagel triple shortly thereafter handed the lead right back to the Black Knights at 57-56 with just over one-minute left to play now. Then, after seeing Lebanon come up empty on their ensuing offensive possession, Hilton was on the scene to pay make the Cedars pay for their error with a pair of fitting late-game free throws, making it 59-56 Hempfield advantage with just 40 seconds remaining.

Needless to say, time was of the essence for the league champions to not only respond, but to extend their season as well. In that regard, the prospect of that grew even more precarious on the following Lebanon possession following the Hilton free throws as a costly Cedars’ turnover was the absolute last thing that the hosts wanted to see happen. Thankfully, as far they were concerned, the ill-timed giveaway did nothing more than subtract seconds off the clock as the Black Knights’ followed the turnover with a 0-2 stretch from the charity stripe, allowing the Cedars to remain within one possession. This time around, Lebanon was able to make good on their newfound opportunity with a fearless take to the tin courtesy of Demetrius Matthew, making it a 59-58 Hempfield lead with just 8.6 left to play. Now, with Lebanon having to play the foul game, the Cedars ended up making Miguel Pena walk the length of the court with the game hanging in the balance with just 7.7 seconds to go. After calmly sinking the first, Pena’s second free throw bounced off the rim before seeming to hang in midair for eternity before a pair of hands could snatch it up. And once the leather did wind up in a pair of mitts, it would prove to be a set belonging to a Black Knight as an enormous, game-saving offensive rebound was hauled down by Hempfield’s Michael Hester, allowing the guests from Landisville to breathe easier, albeit just for a moment. Then, eager with the opportunity to make amends for his 1-2 exchange just moments earlier, Miguel Pena was able to toe the stripe and coolly knock down both offerings with 5.7 left, making it a 62-58 Hempfield lead. Then, with nothing more than a long-shot prayer left to their name, Lebanon’s last ditch heave came up dry, allowing Hempfield to exact their revenge with some late-game execution of their own on Wednesday night on the Cedars’ home floor as Hempfield was able to head home with a thrilling 62-58 win to split the season series, a series which figures to be one of the most hotly-contested over the next couple years given the wealth of underclassmen on both the Black Knights’ and Cedars’ rosters respectively.

In a way, it’d be understandable if Hempfield was looking to turn the page entirely following their gut-punch loss on Saturday. And while reliving an excruciating loss may not exactly be the easiest of things to do, there were elements in Saturday’s setback that Hempfield knew they could take with them into their rematch against Lebanon on Wednesday night.

“My message yesterday and today before the game was, ‘Let’s pick up where we left off on Saturday,’” Hempfield head coach Danny Walck said postgame following his team’s triumph. “I thought we had great energy in that second half (on Saturday) and confidence in ourselves and each other. I just wanted us to jump in with that same momentum and confidence…In any of these games now, there’s going to be runs. When that happens, you have to maintain your composure, maintain your confidence, and continue to play through some of that adversity and I thought we did that,” Walck said proudly. “Lebanon is such a well-coached, talented team. You know they’re going to make runs. I thought by changing defenses, it kept them out of some of their rhythm. You try to balance that guard play as much as you can by changing defenses and I really thought that pay dividends for us.”

Not only that, but the mental fortitude shown by the Black Knights over the course of the days since afternoon cannot be overstated enough. Consider this, not only did Hempfield fall short in the league title in the most heart-wrenching of fashions, but they were also tasked with having to right ship the quickly in a win-or-go home scenario. Oh yeah, their next opponent just so happened to be the team which beat them on Saturday. Not only that, but Hempfield also had to trudge up to Lebanon’s home floor as well. And for a season which has already been one of the longest in memory for too many reasons to count—specifically as it relates to Hempfield’s situation no less—even Coach Walck himself said his troops showed him something new on Wednesday evening.

“We’ve learned a lot about them,” said Walck of his team in the days since the 41-40 loss to Lebanon. “You write that scenario up and you wonder which team is going to show up. On the bus ride up here tonight, it was quiet. Dead quiet. I said, ‘You know what? This is good because they’re focused, and they didn’t come here to just play in the first round.’ So, I felt pretty confident coming in the door tonight that they were in the right head space and that we were going to have a good performance. The question was, would it be good enough to win? Fortunately, it was.”

 

NEXT UP: From here, Hempfield marches onto the second round of the District 3-6A playoffs when the #10-seeded Black Knights travel up to Berks County where they draw not only one of the best teams in District 3, but one of the best squads on the eastern side of Pennsylvania when Hempfield matches up with Wilson and a Bulldogs’ squad spearheaded by Marquette-bound point guard, Stevie Mitchell.

For Lebanon, Wednesday’s loss means the end of the road for a fantastic Lebanon Cedars’ 2020-21 group. Granted, while the initial sting of the loss to Hempfield is sure to linger longer than normal, the Cedars’ resume this year was arguably the most impressive that any L-L League team has put forth this season. Consider that the Cedars were able to knock off the odds-on preseason league favorite, Warwick, twice this season, effectively making Lebanon the true winner of Section Two, all while locking the Warriors out a possible third straight league finals appearance. From there, the Cedars were able to capture the area’s most prized of possessions—the L-L League tournament title—for the first time in nearly two decades. And perhaps the best part? While Lebanon will undoubtedly look different next season given that the Cedars will be without their hammer inside, Isaiah Rodriguez, who will be a casualty to Cedars’ rotation with his graduation this spring, when you bring without question the best backcourt in league back in tow in Marquis Ferreira and Luke Collins respectively, that’s certainly a good place to start the 2021-22 campaign. In short, take heed Cedar-backers: Lebanon is indeed back.

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