BETHLEHEM >> Brian Randolph III could sense it.
He and the Chester Clippers trailed by one point with less then 10 seconds to play. A miss off of a one-and-one and he knew the ball was going to be in his hands with an opportunity to win it. He had practiced this time and time again. The crowd’s cheer had grown immensely during Chester’s comeback and it was going to reach its apex once he sealed the game.
Unfortunately, the crowd noise that greeted him came from the Abington Heights faithful.
Randolph’s missed layup as time expired lifted Abington Heights to a 49-48 victory over Chester in the second round of the PIAA Class 5A Tournament at Liberty High School.
The Comets ended the Clippers season for the second year in a row in the same gym. Last year, Abington Heights pulled out a five-point win in double overtime of the state quarterfinals, and this game had a similar atmosphere.
After the Comets’ Jackson Danzig stepped to the line and missed the front end of a one-and-one with 12.1 seconds remaining, Karell Watkins secured one of his seven rebounds and made an outlet pass to Randolph. The 6-3 senior guard did the only thing any player with that much confidence fueled by a ferocious comeback would do: Drive straight to the hole to win it.
His shot went off the left side of the backboard and was rebounded by Abington Heights’ Jack Nealon to end the game. Despite the miss, Randolph, who finished with nine points and four steals, knew the ball was coming to him.
“I know that being a senior and a captain, the team is going to count on me to take the last shot,” Randolph said. “I’ve been doing it all year. This time, it didn’t fall but I knew that I had to take it. That’s just the responsibility.”
The shot would’ve put the finishing touches on a terrific comeback by Chester (19-9). With 2:06 left in the third quarter, the Clippers trailed 40-23 but still had one last run left. Michael Smith (11 points) converted an and-one, then Randolph finished a layup to end the quarter with a 12-point deficit.
In the fourth, Rahmaad DeJarnette (seven points) hit a runner in the lane, Randolph muscled in an and-one of his one and Smith went coast to coast for a layup. Suddenly, the Comets (24-3) only led by six with 6:27 left. Watkins scored five straight points then another finish by DeJarnette had Chester within one.
Abington Heights’ Mike Malone scored off an out-of-bounds play, but Watkins’ third basket and finally a layup from Malik Langley, his only score of the contest, gave the Clippers their first lead since the opening basket. That bucket capped an 18-4 run.
Danzig led the way for the Comets with 21 points, including the game-winning drive with 23.9 seconds to play. He also added nine rebounds. After having 11 in the first half, Danzig had 10 over the final two quarters but shot 3-for-8.
Randolph was the primary defender for most of that half on Danzig. Randolph’s attempt before the buzzer didn’t go but first-year head coach Keith Taylor was able to appreciate the comeback his team had mustered starting in that third quarter.
“That’s the Chester way,” Taylor said. “Never give up and fight to the end. We put ourselves in a hole in the first half and missed a ton of shots. If we would’ve made a few of those, it wouldn’t have been as hard to come back in the second half as it was. I’m proud of my guys. They fought to the end. “
The Clippers shot a dismal 6-for-21 in the first half, which allowed Abington Heights to lead by as many as 11. The Comets went on a 11-2 run to end the opening quarter, which began with a tough finish by George Tinsley (11) and finished with three straight baskets from Danzig. The Comets’ offense was seamless in that first half but head coach Ken Bianchi said Chester did a good job speeding his team up and taking them out of their natural game.
It was a bittersweet end for Randolph and Chester but after the game the senior could only focus on the tremendous comeback they had put together.
“We knew that we had to turn it on sooner or later,” Randolph said. “If we were going to go out, we were going out with a fight and leave our name and presence on the court. In the second half, we all came together.”
His head coach was able to reflect on the lasting impressing the team left on him and the program.
“They were eager to learn and always wanted to be in the gym,” Taylor said. “They never gave up. They had heart and played well.”