By NEIL GEOGHEGAN
PHILADELPHIA – Seasons rarely die easily, but it was a truly excruciating ending on Saturday for the Conestoga boys’ basketball team.
The scrappy Pioneers had the top team in the Philadelphia Public League on the ropes several times in the opening round of the PIAA Class 6A state playoffs, but faded and were forced to stomach a 66-60 overtime loss to Abraham Lincoln. The sixth seed from District 1, Conestoga blew a seven-point lead late in regulation, and then allowed the Rail Splitters to score the final seven points in the OT session.
“We really showed a ton of heart,” said ’Stoga head coach Mike Troy. “These guys gave everything they had. It’s one of my favorite teams to coach in 23 years. And I don’t say that very easily.”
The Pioneers finish the campaign at 20-8 overall, but came perilously close to moving on, thanks in large part to some late-game heroics from senior Charlie Martin, who poured in a game-high 24 points in his final high school contest.
“Charlie stepped up during a big moment of the game and tried to put us on his back, but we just couldn’t close it out,” Troy said.
With a 3-pointer and four in a row from the line, the 6-foot-4 forward scored seven straight points to put Conestoga in front 58-55 with two minutes remaining in overtime. Martin later added two more free throws to give the Pioneers their last lead, 60-59, with 1:13 on the clock.
“We were moving the ball well and I just happened to be the one getting the shots and getting to the line,” Martin said.
But Lincoln – the Philadelphia City Championship runner-up – took the lead for good on a driving bucket by Shikeir Morrison 27 seconds later, and then closed it out by going 5 of 9 from the free throw line. The Pioneer bench was miffed when Mayock was whistled for a rebounding foul after a Lincoln player missed the front end of a one-and-one with the Rail Splitters clinging to a 61-60 lead.
Conestoga had four empty possessions in the final 36 seconds, however, including a couple open 3-point efforts.
“Credit Lincoln for hitting some shots they didn’t hit earlier,” Troy said. “But our kids executed the game plan perfectly. We set ourselves up for the win, and we had some open shots late and just didn’t hit them.
“We are a good shooting team, so I am happy with those shots. Unfortunately we didn’t make them.”
Now 23-5, Lincoln advances to the second round and will play Carlisle — who eliminated Coatesville. Marlon Sharpton and Khalif Means paced the Rail Splitters with 15 and 14, respectively.
“(Lincoln was) quicker, faster and longer than us, but we played good team basketball,” said senior center Angus Mayock.
“We played our hearts out and left it all on the floor,” said Martin, who wound up scoring all nine of ’Stoga’s OT points. “It was as much effort as anybody could possibly ask from these guys. It just stinks that we couldn’t get just one more point in regulation. But we had a great season.”
Ahead by four heading into the fourth, the Pioneers went on a 9-3 run to open a 44-37 lead with just over five minutes left in regulation. And when Martin connected on one of his four 3-pointers about a minute later, the lead was seven, 49-42.
But Lincoln proceeded to outscore Conestoga 9-2 in the final 2:27 of regulation, thanks in part to three costly Pioneer turnovers. Deadlocked at 51-51, the Rail Splitters held the ball for the final 94 seconds, but a shot by Sharpton at the buzzer failed to drop.
Even though ’Stoga did a nice job, at times, against Lincoln’s harassing pressure defense, they still ended up turning it over 21 times.
“As the game went on (Lincoln’s) energy picked up a bit and their pressure started to get to us a little bit,” said senior guard Scott Shapiro, who finished with 10 points.
“You can’t turn the ball over and expect to win state playoff games,” Troy added. “But it speaks to how well our kids played in spite of all the turnovers.”
Lincoln had three fewer buckets but outscored the Pioneers 20-7 from the charity stripe. Milton Robinson chipped in 11 points and Mayock added eight for Conestoga.
“This wasn’t a surprise to us. We thought we could win this game,” Shapiro said.
“It’s tough for it to end like this,” Martin added. “But I’d rather have it be in a close game. We were in it, we certainly didn’t get blown out, and we just couldn’t finish it off.”
Lincoln 66, Conestoga 60 (OT)
CONESTOGA – Shapiro 4 0-0 10; Robinson 5 1-4 11; Martin 7 6-6 24; Lezanic 2 0-0 5; Mayock 4 0-2 8; Schappell 1 0-0 2. Totals 23 7-12 60.
LINCOLN – Morrison 4 1-3 9; El 1 0-0 3; Coleman 2 3-3 7; Sharpton 4 5-6 15; Charleston 1 1-2 4; Randall 2 4-7 8; Mears 4 4-6 14; Pichardo 0 2-2 2; Wasco 2 0-0 4. Totals 20 20-29 66.
Conestoga 10 13 17 11 9 – 60
Lincoln 8 13 15 15 15 — 66
Three-pointers: Shapiro 2, Martin 4, Lezanic, Sharpton 2, Charleston, Mears 2.