Wilson Turns To Its Roots As Bulldogs Stave Off Frantic Cedar Crest Charge To Advance To District 3-6A Championship Game
Written by: Andy Herr on Wednesday, February 26th, 2020
Let’s talk for a second about preseason goals and aspirations, shall we? In the world of high school basketball, most teams likely have the same basic parameters listed on their whiteboards prior to the start of every season. Generally, the list looks a little something like this: Compete and win your win division, make the league playoffs, and ultimately earn the right to snatch up a ticket into the district playoff field and then hopefully make a run in the tournament from there. However, when talking about teams housed within District 3 most specifically, there is likely one other aspect that makes playing scholastic hoops in this part of the state all the more unique.
You see, for those teams that know full well that they can make a run at the state tournament title which will formally commence in earnest come next weekend, there is one additional goal likely detailed on their preseason docket: Play in Hershey at the Giant Center. Well, ironically, based on District 3’s age-old partnership with Hershey Entertainment, District 3 teams need not worry about making it all the way to final weekend of the high school basketball season to seize that opportunity.
For years, particularly in the now archaic AAA and AAAA classification system, teams needed to win only one game in the District 3 tournament before advancing on to play in Hershey’s palatial high school hoops cathedral in the triple-header format of Friday night and Saturday morning turned afternoon for the quarterfinal round for those respective district tournament brackets. However, thanks to the advent of six classifications nowadays, only the cream of the crop —the two teams that advance all the way to the district finals in each of the six levels—are the ones who earn said opportunity of playing under the bright lights and big stage that only the Giant Center can offer. And as far as the 6A boys’ bracket was concerned this year, truly only the elite of the elite had made it all the way to the round of four, finding themselves just 32 minutes away from moving on the Hershey for the championship game come Saturday afternoon. But speaking of elite teams and squads that certainly had lofty preseason aspirations, there was one semifinal game that seemed to stand out amongst the rest.
To be sure, both Cedar Crest and Wilson figured to be in this very position at this point in the year. For Wilson, the Bulldogs have been able to put together a year that if not already considered to the best in program history, will certainly be somewhere in that discussion once the dust ultimately settles seeing as how the Bulldogs entered their Tuesday night District 3 semifinal tussle as the #4 ranked team in the state in 6A with a 25-1 record to their name, along with a clean sweep through Berks Section One competition that ultimately culminated in Wilson’s first league title since 2014 just two weeks ago. Oh yeah, it also doesn’t hurt to have arguably the best player in school history, junior guard Stevie Mitchell, helping man the controls of the Bulldogs’ ship either I suppose.
On the other side, the Cedar Crest Falcons have long since established their place at the head of the Lancaster-Lebanon League table for nearly a decade now. Sure enough, this year too has proven to be no exception to the norm seeing as how the Falcons went on to claim the L-L Section One title in their own right this year, along with their third league title since 2014 after taking care of Warwick two weeks ago as well. From there, after receiving their L-L championship trophy and gold medals, the Falcons were able to make it to their Tuesday night semifinal battle tilt Wilson after taking care a very stingy Central Dauphin outfit, this year’s Mid-Penn champion, 46-44 this past Friday night.
So, with two division winners who had turned themselves into league champions having the opportunity to go toe-to-toe against one another, Tuesday evening in West Lawn figured to be an epic battle waged between Cedar Crest and Wilson not only given the talent on the floor with the likes of Stevie Mitchell and Avanti Lockhart suiting up for Wilson, along with Ileri Ayo-Faleye and Jason Eberhart patrolling the paint on the other side for Cedar Crest, but the tantalizing prospect of moving on to Saturday’s championship match inside the Giant Center wafting in the air figured to only amplify the tension and intensity given the magnitude of the stakes at hand when these two worthy opponents found themselves pitted against one another.
And sure enough, the battle between these heavyweights ended up living to all the billing and then some by the end of the night.
While playing inside of an atmosphere that resembled that of a true powder keg in every sense of the word, it was understandable and almost expected to see both Cedar Crest and Wilson come of out of the gates perhaps a little more “fired up” than under normal circumstances. Ultimately though, someone had to settle into a groove and find their footing as the opening quarter marched onward. It just so happened that it would be the visitors from Lebanon County who would end up having the honors of calming the turbulent waters first.
In terms of early separation, the Falcons were able to achieve precisely that as back-to-back buckets inside chipped in by the senior duo of Cole Miller and Ileri Ayo-Faleye gave Cedar Crest the 6-1 advantage at the 5:30 mark of the opening stanza.
However, when going up against the likes of a player such as Stevie Mitchell, chances were that the Bulldogs’ 5-star guard wouldn’t let Wilson’s opportunity to reach the Giant Center fall by the wayside.
Sure enough, as if to be right on cue, Wilson’s 6’2 junior guard proceeded to go off on a tear, tallying a pair of two consecutive field goals which quickly knotted things back up at 6-6 just 1:30 later, successfully staving off Cedar Crest’s early surge in momentum. But Mitchell wasn’t done there mind you. In fact, Mitchell would go on to score Wilson’s next field goal yet again, giving the Bulldogs their first lead of the early evening at 8-6 on Wilson’s very next trip down the floor offensively.
So, with Stevie Mitchell already putting on a show that point in the contest, it was time for Cedar Crest’s star, Ileri Ayo-Faleye, to follow suit.
Needless to say, the Falcons’ 6’7 forward would do exactly that by leaking out in transition following a Cedar Crest defensive rebound and then proceeding to throw down an emphatic two-handed dunk down on the other end of the floor to make things all square once again at 8-8, which understandably got the Cedar Crest patrons up on their feet with unbridled excitement.
Even still, Stevie Mitchell would be able to counter right back with another timely bucket of his own late in the first quarter which not only gave Wilson the 10-8 cushion at the end of the first period, it would also put the capper on Mitchell’s star-studded first quarter performance which ultimately culminated in him scoring all 10 of the Bulldogs’ first quarter points.
Throughout much of the second stanza, the game between the Bulldogs and Falcons seemed to never quite get out much further than a four-point window. Case in point, a fearless Avanti Lockhart take to the rack which put the Bulldogs up 12-8 in the early going.
However, just when Wilson likely had started to feel good about things, Cedar Crest proceeded to right the ship and come right back to answer as a pair of two consecutive buckets by way of 6’1 senior guard, Trey Shutter, later knotting things back up at 14-14 with 4:30 left to play before the half.
Here again though, Wilson would have the timely answer for a Cedar Crest rally as a magnificent dish from Stevie Mitchell to a waiting Ryan Strobel underneath gave the Bulldogs the 20-16 lead shortly thereafter, prompting a Cedar Crest timeout while staring at a 20-16 deficit with 1:35 left to play before the halftime recess.
Yet even when Mitchell wasn’t distributing and setting his teammates up for fantastic looks which were typically converted more often times than not, he certainly had no issues whatsoever in terms of taking matters into his own hands. That then rang especially true at the very end of the second frame when with the rock in his hands.
On the Bulldogs’ final possession of the opening half, Mitchell proceeded to dance with his on-ball defender at the top of the key before ultimately rising up and delivering a cold-hearted dagger into the Falcons’ collective heart with a back-breaking trifecta just moments before the halftime horn, sending Wilson into the locker room with ownership of the 23-16 lead.
Granted, while the first half had largely played itself out as a battle between two teams that seemed to be on equal ground with one another, the third quarter on Tuesday evening ultimately manifested itself into the very definition of “Wilson Basketball.”
For years, the Bulldogs’ program has long-been known for locking teams up defensively while playing a methodical, yet equally potent style of play offensively that lends itself to easy buckets following a likely breakdown from the opposition defensively.
Sure enough, while using both of those two key elements in perfect harmony with one another, the Bulldogs were able to increase their existing lead up to double-digit proportions as the third quarter moved along. In fact, the Wilson cushion then ballooned up to the largest it had been up until that point following a 3-ball knocked down by 6’0 senior guard, Kieran Borian, making it a 26-16 Bulldogs’ lead just 2:15 into the second half. From there, the Wilson lead would then increase their advantage to as many as 14 following a marvelous cut to the rack by 5’7 junior guard, Mykel Huffman, on the heels of the deliberate Wilson offense, upping the Bulldogs’ lead to 30-16 at the three-minute mark of the third frame.
In fact, Wilson’s defensive effort throughout the third quarter proved itself to be so potent Cedar Crest was held without a field goal throughout the duration of the entire eight-minute stretch with the Falcons’ only points coming on a pair of Jason Eberhart free throws at the 1:14 mark of the period. And once the dust had finally settled on a largely Wilson-dominated third quarter, the Bulldogs’ lead appeared to rather firm at 34-18 with just one quarter left to go.
Suffice to say, now more than ever before, Cedar Crest needed to conjure up some sort of late-game mojo if they had any aspirations of making the final period anything more than a Wilson coronation. Yet to their credit, Cedar Crest would indeed rally back and drum up a frantic fourth quarter effort that seemed to epitomize their program to a perfect ‘T.’
Granted, it may have started off rather innocently given Grant Allwein’s corner triple in the early going, trimming the Wilson lead down to a baker’s dozen at 34-21 before an Ayo-Faleye take to the rack, good for two more en route to his team-high 11-point performance, sliced the Bulldogs’ lead back down to ten at 36-26 with 4:30 left to play. From there, playing with what felt like all the momentum in the free world at their disposal, the Falcons kept their foot pressed firmly on the gas pedal as a 3-3 stretch from the charity stripe by Allwein suddenly got the Falcons within five at 37-32 at the 3:07 mark with the intensity inside Wilson High School now at a fever pitch.
Now, with Cedar Crest starting to smell blood in the water, a dramatic triple dialed up by 6’1 senior guard, Amani Jones, miraculously got the Falcons within a pair at 39-37, prompting a makeshift mob scene on the floor from the Cedar Crest bench seeing as how they had quickly forced Wilson’s hand into calling a timeout to extinguish the Falcons’ momentum.
Even still, the now precarious situation certainly had to feel like a case of déjà vu for Wilson.
In their most recent game against McCaskey this past Friday night, the Bulldogs found an empty dry spell from the foul line near the middle portion of the fourth quarter eventually lead to a late Red Tornado rally with the game heading into its final moments. Ironically enough, their Tuesday night affair against Cedar Crest contained many of those very same elements.
So, how did Wilson eventually pull away from McCaskey and reach Tuesday night’s semifinal round? With a splendid display of foul shooting with the game starting to teeter on the verge of getting away from the Bulldogs. Sure enough, that was precisely the way in which Wilson just so happened to end Cedar Crest’s hopes of an upset bid as well.
Within the final minute and change, Wilson proceeded to return to their roots and force the Falcons into dealing with an ill-fated case of the turnover bug, never letting Cedar Crest tally any more than two more points for the rest of the evening. Then, after locking up their adversaries on the defensive end, the Bulldogs would then proceed to toe the charity stripe in hopes of hopefully creating that final bit of difference between themselves and the Falcons.
Indeed, thanks in large part to the timely and clutch free throw shooting by the junior backcourt tandem of Mykel Huffman and Stevie Mitchell respectively, the Bulldogs’ prowess from the foul line proved to be the greatest difference down the stretch as Wilson went on to keep the Falcons at bay for the rest of the game, eventually coming away with an emotional and hard-fought 49-39 final decision over Cedar Crest to advance onto Saturday’s District 3-6A championship game opposite of Reading at the Giant Center.
NEXT UP: Yes, while Cedar Crest certainly wanted to make good on yet another trip to Hershey, the Falcons still have locked up their bid to the upcoming 6A state playoffs even despite their setback against Wilson. That said, there is still the matter of seeding to eventually work out as the Falcons will now have to travel to Central York, a 65-64 shortcomer against Reading in the other semifinal round contest, for a Thursday evening slugfest to determine the #3 and #4 seeds in the state bracket respectively.
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