BETHLEHEM >> Chalk it up to the delirium of the moment — to his proximity to mounds of Hershey kisses banked courtside like freshly-cleared snow — that caused Jack Nealon to veer from one extreme to another.
He was difficult to pick out of the crowd at Freedom High School Monday night, not just for the throngs of Abington Heights faithful streaming from the stands, their premature excitement turned briefly to rage then elated relief. The Comets’ mop-haired junior guard was out of the niche he’d inhabited for 36 game minutes, with Bonner & Prendergast’s Isaiah Wong unfailingly in his shadow.
“It was very fun. It was a challenge,” Nealon said, the non sequitur intact. “I had to step up and take it and it was an experience. When I’m older, I get to say I got to guard a Division I player, so it’s pretty fun.”
Nealon isn’t headed for the armchair in the den to spin tales of glory days past just yet — not, at least, until Abington Heights plays for its first PIAA Class 5A championship, thanks to an astonishing 56-51 overtime win over Bonner. But the tale of the Comets’ triumph rests as much in the undersized guard as the mounds (not Mounds) of candy.
In the second half and overtime Monday, Bonner & Prendie scored just four baskets. The prime reason was Nealon’s constant harassment of Wong, the Friars’ blue-chip guard. Wong tallied a game-high 19 points. But he made just one second-half basket and rarely touched the ball late when the District 12 champs trailed and needed the kind of big shots Wong had provided all season.
“We knew he was their best player on the floor,” Nealon said. “We felt like if we could take him away, we could win this game, and that’s exactly what we did. He’s a hell of a player. He’s got 15 Division I offers for a reason.”
“The way they face-guarded me, it really affected my game today,” Wong said. “And the way they clogged the paint, I tried to get the big men the ball and just couldn’t.”
Nealon’s job on Wong is a granular point in a larger tale, of a Comets team whose seven-man rotation was dogged with foul trouble and surmounted the kind of adversity that no team can prepare for.
With the clock supposedly at zeroes and Abington Heights up three on the scoreboard, pandemonium broke loose. A Mike Perretta 3-pointer rimmed out, and the guard battled for the rebound. Perretta hit the deck, just a second before a cascade of Hershey kisses from the Abington Heights student section and several hasty departures from the bench did.
The call on the court was a blocking foul, then a bench technical for the confectionary pelting. Four free throws with one second on the clock, and one bench looking for divine intervention.
“I tried to calm them down because obviously they were real mad at the last-second foul,” Heights forward George Tinsley said. “It wasn’t what we expected. We just had to pray that he’d miss one.”
Perretta stepped the line to hit one … then two … then three, without a whisper of contact with the rim. The fourth clanged every part of iron and kicked out, the 85.7 percent free-throw shooter (who had only attempted 14 this year, eight in the state tournament) hopping back in agony as soon as he released.
A Donovan Rodriguez heave from 35-feet rimmed out at the buzzer, sending the teams to overtime … and Abington Heights to a coveted
What Nealon and company did in overtime typified their day. The Comets (26-3) had trailed throughout the first half but muted Bonner & Prendergast to three points in the third quarter to surge ahead. Then they employed slowdown tactics, patiently milking the clock before unleashing back cuts and bounce passes to break down the Friars. It wasn’t always pretty, but it proved pretty effective.
“We thought that if they could fall into our pace, we had them dead in the water and we could beat them,” Nealon said. “That’s exactly what happened.”
The Comets forced 15 turnovers. They hit 18 of 20 free throws, including 7-for-7 from Nealon for 14 points. They spread Bonner out and picked their sorties to the basket, Tinsley’s left-handed layup off glass with 52 seconds left in OT giving him 18 points and the Comets the decisive four-point edge.
And all the while, they forced a team with two Division I bigs and a point guard who’ll have his pick of schools to look uncomfortable.
“They’re very good,” Bonner & Prendergast coach Jack Concannon said. “They packed the zone in and we had trouble getting the ball into the post. Bottom line is you have to make shots when a team plays zone, and we weren’t able to make shots.”
“They did a good job defensively,” said Ajiri Johnson, limited to 4 points while Tariq Ingraham scored 12. “We should’ve done a better job executing. We forced a lot of shots and forced a lot of passes and got key turnovers that kept them in the game and they took the lead. It could’ve been our game, but we needed to do a better job of keeping the ball and taking good shots.”
There’s a through line for it all — from the defense to the recovery before overtime to the unflinching poise at the line. The neutral observer would’ve decisively granted the Friars the talent advantage. But that’s not the way fate bestows trips to Hershey.
“We just had to battle through it,” Nealon said. “We’ve been through adversity before. We blew a 17-point lead to Chester (in the second round). We’ve been here. Coach just told us if we kept battling, we could win.”
To contact Matthew De George, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sportsdoctormd.
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