TREDYFFRIN >> When you get to the time of the season where everything is a one and done proposition, you don’t worry about style points.
Just win and advance.
Friday night, in the opening round of the District 1 Class 6A playoffs against 19th-seeded Cheltenham, No. 14 Conestoga did not play anywhere near its best game, and watched a seven-point lead slip away in the fourth quarter to force overtime.
But the gutsy Pioneers dug down and defeated the Panthers, 56-54, in overtime to set up a second round road date with Central League foe Lower Merion on Tuesday.
It will be the third time the teams have met this season.
“I was joking with the Lower Merion coaches at the seeding meeting and I think it will be the fifth year in a row we are playing them in the districts,” Conestoga coach Mike Troy said. “We are very familiar with one another and they are a very good team.”
Friday night, Conestoga (16-7) took a 42-35 lead with just over three minutes to play in the fourth quarter. But despite Troy’s pleas to pull the ball out and run some clock, the Pioneers kept shooting and the Panthers (14-8) came all the way back behind the shooting of guard Amir Lewis, who led the Panthers with 19 points.
Things got so hairy that Cheltenham sent senior guard Ahmad Bickley to the free-throw line with 0.7 remaining and a 47-46 deficit to shoot a pair. Fortunately for Conestoga, Bickley hit just one of his two shots to send the thrilling contest into overtime.
“We really picked up the intensity in the fourth period,” Troy said. “We lost the lead but the kids got tough and found a way to win the game and they say that good teams will find ways to win. Tonight the kids did find that way.”
In overtime, Mike Erickson hit two free throws for the Pioneers to take a 49-48 lead with 2:00 to play. But Tim Healey hit on a follow and foul and Cheltenham had a 51-49 lead with just 1:10 on the clock.
Conestoga’s Zach Lezanic followed with a 3-pointer, one of three on the night, and Conestoga had a 52-51 lead with 1:01 to play. Both teams could have iced the game with better foul shooting as the Panthers went just 13 for 19 while the Pioneers were even worse at 11 for 20.
“We came out fighting in the fourth period,” Conestoga guard Milton Robinson said. “They had a lot of good players but we kept fighting and got the win.”
Robinson led Conestoga with 18 points, and after Bickley hit a runner to make it a 53-52 game, Robinson found Shane Scott darting across the lane for a basket and a 54-53 Conestoga advantage with 46 seconds to play.
The drama was not over yet, however. Lezanic was fouled after a Bickley miss but hit only one of two free throws for a 55-53 Conestoga lead with 26.4 seconds left. Lewis drove the lane, got fouled and he hit just one of two from the charity stripe to make it 55-54 game with nine seconds to play. Lezanic was fouled immediately on the inbounds pass and again made just one of two from the line, and Cheltenham had life. But Lewis’ attempt at a game-winning 3-pointer fell short and Conestoga could finally peek ahead at a date with Lower Merion.
“We knew if we lost we were done playing,” Robinson said. “And we all love basketball and we did not want that to happen. The Lower Merion game will be a dogfight but we will be ready.”