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Nelson’s return has solidified Haverford School’s defense

Haverford School guard Jameer Nelson Jr., seen as a sophomore, returned from a 14-game injury absence to add to the Fords' roll, including Tuesday's 59-32 win over Episcopal Academy. (DFM File)

HAVERFORD — Two weeks ago, the question might have seemed fair. For a 15-0 Haverford School basketball squad, where and how was the return of injured guard Jameer Nelson Jr. going to make the Fords better?

It’s no slight on the senior Saint Joseph’s commit, rather a testament to the team that had grown up without him, as he missed 14 games with a meniscus tear. Roles had solidified, and the unbeaten Fords were doing pretty well with what they had.

So where in that mix would Nelson carve out his niche?

An answer presented itself Tuesday, in emphatic fashion, with Nelson leading a smothering defense that blanketed Episcopal Academy out of the game, a 59-32 win that nudges Haverford School within one victory of a second straight Inter-Ac title.

“We played great defense, I think that was the biggest thing,” Nelson said. “And that’s our next step growing as a team.”

Nelson will lead the Fords in that growth. Tuesday, they pocketed nine steals, four by Nelson. Three of his pilferings ended with dunks as Nelson scored 13 points and grabbed seven rebounds.

Haverford School’s Gavin Burke, right, here taking a shot against Episcopal in a game between the teams Jan. 11, scored eight points and collected three assists Tuesday to help push the Fords to another win over the Churchmen. (Pete Bannan/Digital First Media)

The combination of Nelson, fellow guard Tyler Seward and senior Gavin Burke gives the Fords three top perimeter defenders, to go with Christian Ray on the wing and Asim Richards in the lane. Add in the length of Jameel Brown and all the experience that Seward gained while Nelson sat, and the Fords have a deep roster that makes life a nightmare for ball-handlers.

“He definitely can impact the game just by his defense alone,” Richards said of Nelson. “He gets so many steals a game. He can just impact the game just on defense.”

“I think it’s a great strength because Tyler and I are almost the same size,” Nelson said. “For me to come out and him to come in, it’s going to be hard on somebody, dribbling the ball all game.”

That defense also created the most obvious niche to slide Nelson back in on Jan. 15. Though Seward’s offensive numbers have fallen a touch since Nelson returned, from 11.4 points per game to 10.2, Nelson has scored at least nine points in each of his six post-injury outings, and the Fords (21-0, 8-0) haven’t missed a beat.

“I thought it was going to be a challenge, but everybody told me keep shooting,” Nelson said. “I was struggling when I came back in but they told me, ‘keep shooting, just keep playing,’ and that helped a lot. Everybody just supported me.”

“He’s been at practices all the time, so he knew all the plays,” Richards said. “When he got cleared to play, he came right in and fit right in, and that’s a big help for us. He brings that explosiveness, the IQ and everything he brings, and that shooting, too. It’s a great pick-up for us.”

In the top-to-bottom domination that the Fords (21-0, 8-0) unleashed in the first three quarters before calling off the dogs, Nelson’s slams provided the exclamation point (even if one in the second quarter involved a technical foul for taunting an EA player).

“It sparks everybody, the crowd, the bench, everybody,” Nelson said. “I think plays like that, that’s what basketball’s about.”

Episcopal Academy (10-12, 3-5) is a squad ripe for muting without second-leading scorer Alex Capitano (ankle). Through three quarters, the Churchmen had just 19 points from two scorers; 12 from Matt Dade, hard-earned buckets against Ray’s defense, and seven from Colin Chambers. Tommy Dennis and Andrew Alikakos, who didn’t play until the fourth quarter, tied for third on the team with four points each.

By the time Haverford’s starters were called to the bench, the Fords had a 56-24 lead.

Defense and rebounding powered the first-half edge. Haverford held a 37-17 margin on the glass; EA’s total was matched by Ray all alone, who paired 17 points with 17 boards.

Nelson ended the first quarter with a left-hand layup off glass. He cleaned up a missed Ray bucket in the final seconds of the second quarter, spun past a defense and beat the buzzer with a lay-in. It capped a 12-0 run to end the half, the Fords’ defense keeping EA off the scoreboard on seven straight trips to accrue a 32-12 edge at intermission.

“Defense was big,” said Richards, who paired four points with three blocks. “Tuesday games, it’s a little sluggish, and coming right after school and stuff. We just make it a priority to focus a lot on defense and don’t let the other team score, and our offense will flow by itself.”

The offensive blitz duly arrived in the third quarter, when the Fords connected on nine of 11 shots. Brown hit his third 3-pointer of the game to finish with nine points. Burke, who paired eight points with three assists, canned a pair of mid-range jumpers.

Ray hit a 3-pointer, shaking off a 5-for-11 shooting first half with more misses around the rim than he would’ve liked.

The win is the Fords’ fourth straight against EA and 19th consecutive in Inter-Ac play. The Fords close out with a trip to Springside Chestnut Hill Friday, then are at Malvern Prep next Tuesday. One win guarantees a share of a league title, and two would solidify a second straight outright crown.

The first installment of that strong finish took place Tuesday.

“It feels really good to be back and to beat EA again,” Nelson said. “It’s my last time playing them, so we went out with a bang.”

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