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Team effort, 2nd-half surge send Abington past Cheltenham for SOL American title

Abington’s Lucas Monroe dribbles up court near Plymouth Whitemarsh’s Jordan Evans during their game on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. Abington clinched the outright SOL American Conference title with a 69-60 win over Cheltenham on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019. (Gene Walsh/MediaNews Group)

CHELTENHAM >> Lucas Monroe caught Maurice Henry’s eye across the court, raised his arm and pointed toward the rim.

The Abington senior soared into the air as Henry lobbed the ball up, with Monroe catching it at the apex and slamming it down to give the Galloping Ghosts a one-point lead over Cheltenham going into the final quarter. In the latest chapter of the backyard rivalry, the teams authored another classic with the SOL American Conference title on the line.

Monroe scored 22, including his 1,000th point, Eric Dixon added 26 and the rest of the Ghosts hit their usual big shots as Abington fended off a title-seeking Panthers squad 69-60 Thursday night.

“It’s Abington-Cheltenham, it’s their Senior Night, it’s the league championship, even if we lost we still would have been champs but it was for an outright championship,” Monroe said. “We knew they were going to come out hot with a lot of energy. They punched us in the face, but we didn’t get fazed. We’ve been in that situation probably 1,000 times before.”

It’s a game that usually draws a big crowd regardless of record, but with the Ghosts (21-1, 14-0 SOL American) and Cheltenham (15-6, 12-2 SOL American) separated by just a game in the conference standings going in, there wasn’t a seat to be had by tip-off. Those who got in the gym on time saw the Panthers shoot out of the gate on their Senior Night as they played a nearly perfect first quarter.

Junior point guard Zahree Harrison was electric early, scoring 13 first quarter points with plenty of swagger as the Panthers raced out to a 24-15 lead over the visitors. Monroe had two dunks early, but the Ghosts mixed some careless turnovers with a handful of missed shots as they tried to keep Cheltenham from getting too far ahead.

“They play hard, they had a lot of energy, it’s Abington-Cheltenham, it’s almost like enough said about their effort in that first half,” Abington coach Charles Grasty said. “They threw the first punch and I thought we handled it. Give the credit to them for challenging us but we knew at halftime we could make a few adjustments.”

Cheltenham’s torrid pace slowed from first quarter to second, but the Panthers still had a 10-point lead with 1:53 left in the half before settling for a 34-27 advantage at the break. Harrison, who tied for the game-high with 26 points, had 19 after two quarters.

“We didn’t have the coaches’ meeting yet, but he’s a first team all-league kid,” Grasty said of the Panthers guard. “He gets them going and credit to their other players, they feed off him and play extremely well off him. He’s unselfish and makes a lot of plays for his teammates. We felt if we could slow him a little bit, make it difficult for him, then we could rebound and get out in transition.”

Dixon, heading to Villanova and Monroe, off to Penn, draw a lot of praise and attention for the Ghosts but the two of them are as quick to pass the credit off to the guys around them. After shooting 0-of-6 from 3-point range as a team in the first half, the Ghosts’ supporting cast stepped up for some huge shots in the second half.

Cheltenham started the third quarter with a couple of quick turnovers and more harmful to the Panthers, senior center Kyin Healey picked up two quick fouls to give him four total. With their lone post presence on the bench, the Panthers couldn’t stop the Ghosts from going up 38-36 after junior Manir Waller turned a steal into a layup.

“For us, it was the same thing in the first game where we had one bad spurt and kind of got away from our energy,” Cheltenham coach Pat Fleury said. “We’ve got to find a way to keep that energy up. 69-60, we’re definitely not happy with it, we’ll watch the tape tomorrow and there’s probably a lot of little things if we do, it goes differently.”

Fleury didn’t criticize his team’s effort, and the Panthers did re-gain the lead before Monroe’s alley-oop slam put Abington ahead 44-43 going into the final quarter. Cheltenham took a 46-44 lead on Justin Moore’s 3-pointer with 6:52 left and sat tied 48-48 on Harrison’s layup with 5:28 to go.

One of the adjustments Abington made was having Monroe switch onto Harrison defensively.

“I’ve been teammates with Zahree since we were 10 or 11 years old, so I’ve played with him a lot,” Monroe said. “He was hitting a lot of jump shots, but I just wanted to use my length to try and make him take a lot of deep, contested threes. We had a game plan for him, he’s not super big, but he’s super crafty and so good at getting where he wants to.”

Monroe gave Abington the lead for good with 5:07 left when he drove, drew a foul and made the shot anyway. He converted the free throw to not only finish a three-point play, but put him squarely at 1,000 points. A 6-foot-6 wing, Monroe added nine rebounds, five assists and three blocks to fill out his strong two-way play.

“It’s a huge rivalry, so it was kind of nice for me to get it on their court in such a big game,” Monroe said. “It would have been cool to get it at home, but we had pretty much all of Abington out here, so it was just like doing it at home. It added to the accomplishment for me getting it as part of such a big rivalry.”

After two free throws from Monroe put the Ghosts up 53-48, Darius Brown found Henry for a huge 3-pointer with 4:02 left. Henry, who scored all five of his points in the fourth and Brown, who buried a dagger trey with 2:08 left, did what they’ve done all year by hitting timely shots.

“My guys work hard just like I do, we’re in the gym together every day,” Dixon said. “When they’re scoring and making shots, it gives me great joy. When our guys hit shots, it shows people that yeah, they can play too and only makes things better for us. It means more to me when they hit one than I hit one because I see them work hard and I know it gets to them seeing Eric and Lucas everywhere, but they’re as big a part of the team as we are.”

Dixon, who had 19 rebounds, was a monster on the glass in the second half and grabbed almost every available defensive rebound after halftime. The senior, who also blocked six shots, said he’s talked with Grasty and ‘Nova coach Jay Wright about impacting the game in other ways and Thursday, that meant getting rebounds.

Both teams will be a part of the SOL tournament this Saturday.

As he stood in a back hallway discussing the game, Monroe held a book titled “Intellectuals and Society.” While the senior said he’s only about “five or six pages” in, if he and the rest of the Ghosts keep playing this way, he should have a few bus rides coming to delve a little deeper into it.

“They love each other, they trust each other and they’re family,” Grasty said. “It’s been big for us.”

ABINGTON 15 12 17 25 – 69
CHELTENHAM 24 10 9 17 – 60
Abington: Eric Dixon 9 8-11 26, Manir Waller 4 1-5 9, Maurice Henry 2 0-0 5, Darius Brown 2 0-0 5, Lucas Monroe 8 6-6 22, Jason Scott 1 0-0 2. Totals: 26 15-22 69.
Cheltenham: Zahree Harrison 9 4-5 27, Tim Myarick 6 1-2 13, Jaelen McGlone 3 2-2 9, Mike McClain 2 0-1 5, Justin Moore 2 2-2 7. Totals: 22 9-12 60.
3-pointers: A – Henry, Brown; C – Harrison 4, McClain, McGlone, Moore.

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