As a self-proclaimed “hoops junkie,” how on earth do you go about trying to describe what may have been the best high school basketball game that you have ever witnessed? Well, here it goes.
Coming into the weekend (and really the season quite honestly), most fans across the state of Pennsylvania were more than curious to see just how one of the best brands in commonwealth, Kennedy Catholic, would embrace and handle their new and self-requested jump all the way up from the 1A to 6A ranks this season. After Saturday night, it turns out that they did more than alright.
Their challenger for the evening would be the Pennridge Rams. And while the name Cinderella gets thrown out perhaps a little too much this time of year, the name seemed more than fitting given the way the Rams marched their way to Hershey behind a handful of late-game, pulse-stopping buckets. But yet even while Pennridge had successfully proven their worth by virtue of coming out the other side of an always strong District 1 field, some even went so far as to reference Saturday night’s titanic 6A title tilt with tremors of a battle between David & Goliath.
From the outset, it appeared that David had more than enough stones in his pocket to his hurl at the mighty giant. Even despite playing against the likes of Adonis, or as many know him best, McDonald’s All American and West Virginia commit Oscar Tshiebwe, the Rams carried a 16-14 lead with them heading into the second quarter.
And while Tshiebwe would proceed to throw down more than his fair share of thunderous, one-handed slams from point-blank range in the second period, Pennridge continued to remain undaunted throughout it all as the Rams went into the halftime intermission with ownership of the 28-25 lead, thanks in large part to a key late-half triple splashed in by 6’1 senior guard, Jack Gillespie.
In the third quarter, Kennedy Catholic proceeded to go on the attack. In doing so, the Golden Eagles were rewarded handsomely for their efforts as a fearless take to the rack by way of 6’6 junior guard Ike Herster put the three-time defending state champions back in front by the slimmest of margins at 34-33 at the midway mark of the third frame.
But once again, the Rams continued to stand their ground.
Even while navigating what had now become rocky waters thanks to the dominance being exerted by the troops from Kennedy Catholic, Jack Gillespie fired in yet another key trifecta in the face of adversity, bringing the Rams back to a stalemate with the Golden Eagles at 38-38 with 1:42 left to go in the quarter. And once the dust had finally settled on the third quarter of play, the Rams found themselves back in front once again at 40-38.
From that point on, things started to get a little haywire.
While playing behind an overwhelmingly large and boisterous fanbase who made the trip westward from Perkasie, the Rams continued to slam their foot down to the floorboard as a steal and finish from 6’5 senior forward Jonathan Post allowed Pennridge to enjoy a lead of the half dozen variety at 44-38 with 6:34 left to play.
But as was to be expected, Kennedy Catholic came roaring right back.
Following the Golden Eagles’ timeout following the Post theft and bucket, Kennedy Catholic proceeded to rattle off a timely 5-0 blitz, capped off by a 3-ball sunk by 6’8 senior forward and Toledo Rocket-bound Mattia Acunzo, narrowing the Rams’ lead back down to one at 44-43 shortly thereafter.
The only problem was, no one remembered to tell Sean Yoder and his band of Rams to go away quietly in order to let Kennedy Catholic relish and enjoy their moment of glory.
And almost as if right on cue, the future Navy Midshipman point guard proceeded to author a block on the defensive end before hustling back on offense to finish things off with a bucket at the cup, pushing the Pennridge lead back up to five points at 50-45 with 2:37 now showing on the clock.
But as was to be expected (yet again), the Golden Eagles were truly golden over the course of the ensuing 1:22, successfully clawing all the back to tie things up at 50-50 following a humongous corner 3-ball knocked down by Ike Herster.
However, even with the score tied and things appearing to destined for a deserving period of extra time, Pennridge had a glimmer of hope — albeit for just a moment — as a runout opportunity for the Rams with the clock now ticking under 10 seconds left to play appeared to give Pennridge the opportunity to claim a walk-off style win in the state’s final high school game of the season.
But it was not to be as Oscar Tshiebwe rose up not once, but twice, for back-to-back game-saving blocks in the final second of regulation to usher Kennedy Catholic and Pennridge into a deserving four-minute extra session.
As one could imagine, the drama was at an unprecedented level once inside overtime. But perhaps none more so than when Sean Yoder rose up and fired in a gigantic triple for the Rams, good for 3 of his team-high 18-point effort on the night, to put Pennridge back in front at 55-54 with 1:13 left to go. However, the volleys continued to be traded back and forth as Mattia Acunzo answered right back with the immediate rebuttal in the paint, giving the lead back to the Golden Eagles.
Equally expected was sure to be the topic of late-game free throws. And while both teams struggled to put the opposition away with their foul shooting heading down the stretch, two freebies cashed in by Sean Yoder with 5.8 left to go in the first overtime period sent this heavyweight bout into a second overtime.
By and large, the theme throughout the first few minutes of the second overtime session appeared to be Kennedy Catholic gaining the upper hand, yet never so much so in a manner which seemed to keep Pennridge from fighting back the remainder of the evening. And never more so did that appear to be evident than with 6’1 senior forward Pat Gillespie proceeding to check in off the bench and rifle in an absolutely fearless 3-ball to trim the Kennedy Catholic advantage back down to one at 61-60 with time ticking down.
Yet while the Golden Eagles would go back up by three at 63-60 following a successful 2-2 trip to the charity stripe by way of 6’5 senior guard and Duquesne-bound Maceo Austin, Pennridge refused to nudge even an inch following their 2-2 trip to the line thanks to the efforts of 5’7 senior guard, Nick Dunn.
That helped set the stage for what was without question the play of the year in Pennsylvania high school basketball.
With Kennedy Catholic likely squirming somewhat given their slim one-point cushion with time winding down on their ensuing trip down the floor, a frantic scrum saw the loose pill wind up the hands of Oscar Tshiebwe, with the 6’9 center looking to slam home yet another emphatic jam. However, waiting on the other end stood 6’2 Sean Yoder, as Yoder climbed the ladder and stuffed Tshiebwe, causing everyone’s jaws in the Giant Center and those watching at home to simultaneously drop to the floor all at once.
But even with all the pomp and circumstance surrounding Yoder’s block, the most important piece to take away from the play was the fact that the ball bounded off Yoder’s hand and across the baseline, keeping possession in favor of the Golden Eagles with 26.2 left to tick off the clock. And after successfully inbounding the ball, Ike Herster found himself back at the foul line with the opportunity to create some much-needed breathing room for Kennedy Catholic with 14.9 to go.
Unfortunately for Herster and the Golden Eagle contingent who had traversed their back to Hershey by way of the western outpost of Hermitage, it was not to be, as Sean Yoder collected the defensive rebound and proceeded to trot down the court with the opportunity to finish off his scholastic career with yet another late-game buzzer beater.
However, while recognizing an open opportunity to dish it off to a teammate in the lane for what would appear to be an easy chip shot from point-blank range, Yoder did so, only to witness Oscar Tshiebwe rise to the occasion once again (both literally and figuratively), swatting away the Rams’ game-winning shot with 0.5 seconds left to go, all but assuring the Golden Eagles of an unprecedented fourth consecutive state crown. And after one last free throw, that was all she wrote, as Kennedy Catholic silenced the critics by way of their incredible 6A state title, knocking off Pennridge 64-62 in double overtime in a game in which many esteemed dignitaries sitting along press row were calling one of the best games they had ever witnessed in covering state championship games at Hershey just moments after its conclusion.