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Lower Moreland does it together, tops Pope John Paul II for District 1-4A title

The Lower Moreland boys basketball team poses with the District 1-5A championship trophy after defeating Pope John Paul II in the final on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019 at Plymouth Whitemarsh. (Andrew Robinson/MediaNews Group)

WHITEMARSH >> Jordan Zoubroulis didn’t have to see, he just knew.

The Lower Moreland senior’s line of sight was impaired by the frantic waving arms of two Pope John Paul II defenders at the left wing but all he needed was room to get the pass off. As this was happening, Andrew Finnegan never took his eyes off Zoubroulis then finally made a cut to the hoop, caught his teammate’s pass and reversed in a layup.

All the Lions had to do after that was endure the most terrifying 3-point shot any of them had been on a court for and only then could they celebrate a 49-48 win over PJP II in the District 1-4A boys basketball championship game.

“We’ve been playing together for countless years and when you play together for so long, it’s just easy to find the open guys,” Zoubroulis said. “It’s like second nature to get somebody open at this point, it’s, I don’t know, we’ve been together so long it’s almost easy at this point.”

Finnegan’s layup with 58 seconds left proved to be the game-winner but only after the Lions made a defensive stand and then watched a 3-point try by Drew McKeon clang off the back of the rim at the buzzer.

Panthers coach Brendan Stanton admitted it was a tough way to end the season, but had nothing but praise for the way his players competed.

“It wasn’t the way we wanted it to end but coming into the year if you told me we’d have a chance to win the district title with a shot at the buzzer, you couldn’t ask for anything more,” Stanton said. “With these kids, I just told them this game was one chapter in what’s been an amazing season for us. What the seniors have done to turn around this program in the last nine months has been amazing.”

While it may be easy for Zoubroulis and his teammates to find each other on the floor, Saturday’s game at Plymouth Whitemarsh was decidedly not easy. The Panthers, who won the Frontier Division in the PAC, were geared up to stop the BAL champions.

PJP (13-12) threw an unconventional defense at the Lions, playing a sort of box-and-one with Tyshyre DeVeaux shadowing BAL MVP Shane Cohen. Cohen, who just crossed the 1,000-point barrier in the semifinals, said he and teammates were ready for the different look but noted PJP still played it really well.

“The plan was to try and keep Cohen out of the paint and the box-and-one, it’s something we’ve done before and we felt it’s one of our strongest defenses,” Stanton said. “Tyshyre did an amazing job. I watched a lot of Lower Moreland tape and he did an amazing job keeping Cohen in front of him.

“I know it was unconventional, but they’re a really good team and used to winning games five-out and making themselves harder to guard.”

Cohen didn’t think he would score a lot early and only had four of his 13 points in the first half. He ramped it up when he had to, as did the rest of the Lions. Lower Moreland (25-3) didn’t have its best shooting night, hitting just 3-of-19 from 3-point range and missing its first seven long balls but that wasn’t a deterrent.

“We game-planned it a little bit, so I figured I could get the middle open for Jordan and Jake Himmelstein because they were getting wide open layups and (PJP) had to adjust to that,” Cohen said. “Once they adjusted, I knew I’d have more gaps to start scoring.”

Finnegan was a spark off the bench with 11 points and his fallaway jumper just before halftime put LM up 23-22.

Lower Moreland was really good at late-quarter scores on Saturday. Zoubroulis bullied his way down the lane for a buzzer-beater at the end of the third for a 39-38 lead.

Every run Lower Moreland made, PJP answered and vice-versa. Justin Green came on strong late for the Panthers, Sean Bustynowicz had a big third quarter and McKeon was solid all game on both ends of the floor.

McKeon had a thunderous block of a Joey Cerruti layup attempt with 24 seconds left and his team down a point. After a PJP timeout, the team’s last, with 20.5 seconds left, Cerruti got his revenge, drawing a charge with 10 seconds to go.

“They all did great across the board but for a kid to make a mistake the way Joey did on the layup that got blocked then have the heart and mental fortitude to come back and make the defensive play of the game, that charge he took, that’s a pretty awesome moment,” Lions coach Seth Baron said. “Everyone gets the hero cap but I’m proud of the way he bounced back.”

Zoubroulis dished four beautiful assists in the fourth quarter, but none nicer than the one that found Finnegan for the winner.

“We’ve been playing together since grade school and every time I see that look in his eye, I know to cut backdoor,” Finnegan said. “We’ve been doing it for years now and when I saw that look, it was time to cut.

“I was a little nervous, it’s a lot of pressure there. I missed one earlier in the game so I guess that made up for it, I was just happy I got that opportunity.”

Stanton’s only lament was that he didn’t have another timeout left when a missed free throw with 7.6 seconds left gave his guys a last chance. McKeon, who pulled up from the edge of the PW logo, has hit shots like that before and as the team’s best shooter, he was the guy Stanton wanted taking the last look.

“I thought it was going in,” Zoubroulis said. “I’m lucky it took a hard bounce and came right to my hands so they couldn’t get a put-back or anything like that.”

Lower Moreland moves on to states for the second straight year and gets about two weeks to rest, recharge and a few more practices together for the team’s double-digit senior class.

“It means everything,” Cohen said. “This was the one thing we all wanted as a senior class and for our coaches. It’s Coach Baron’s first one and we were glad to do it for him.”

“It’s the world to us,” Zoubroulis added. “We’re a family, we all wanted it for each other and not just ourselves.”

Lower Moreland 49, Pope John Paul II 48
Lower Moreland 6 17 16 10 – 49
Pope John Paul II 11 11 16 10 – 48
Lower Moreland: Joey Cerruti 2 2-2 7, Shane Cohen 6 1-2 13, Jake Himmelstein 4 3-4 11, Jordan Zoubroulis 3 0-0 7, Forrest Keys 1 0-1 2, Andrew Finnegan 5 0-0 11. Totals: 20 6-9 49.
Pope John Paul II: Tyshyre DeVeaux 2 2-2 7, Christopher White 3 0-0 7, Drew McKeon 4 1-2 12, Sean Bustynowicz 5 0-0 11, Justin Green 5 1-1 11. Totals: 19 4-5.
3-pointers: LM- Zoubroulis, Cerruti, Finnegan; PJP – McKeon 3, Bustynowicz, White, DeVeaux.

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