La Salle uses big second half to crush Abington Heights in PIAA AAAA 2nd round

BETHLEHEM — Sean Witherspoon powered into the lane and kicked to Daniel Corr on the wing.

Corr’s 3-pointer was off, but Witherspoon was there to grab the rebound. The La Salle senior went up and couldn’t finish but after the ball was volleyed around, he got it back, dribbled and finally scored.

The effort was emblematic of his team’s on Wednesday night. The Explorers looked great early, had a gut-check moment then put it all together in the second half to race past Abington Heights 62-40 in the second round of the PIAA Class AAAA boys basketball tournament at Freedom High School in Bethlehem.

“We’ve got a mature team, we had them down 14 in the first half and we didn’t value that moment,’ La Salle coach Joe Dempsey said. “We had a few empty possessions and a few silly plays on defense. (Abington Heights) is a good team, they’re 22-3 and they have a great program. I said look, this is going to go one of two ways. Either the first three minutes (of the second half), they’re going to play better and knock it down or we’re going to have stops and good possessions and pump it up to 16 or 18.’

La Salle’s aggression overwhelmed Abington Heights in the early stages. The Explorers forced Comets coach Ken Bianchi to call two timeouts in the first 2:45 of the game, both coming after Dave Krmpotich dunks.

Krmpotich scored 10 points in the first half with four dunks, including a vicious one-hander that earned the forward a tech for a staredown afterward. He also had a perfectly-timed chasedown block on Tim Toro.

To the Comets’ credit, they weathered the La Salle storm despite trailing by 14 with 4:14 left in the first half. Down 27-13, Abington Heights scored 10 of the next 12 — Krmpotich’s dunk the lone Explorer hoop — and cut the lead to 29-23 with 1:30 left.

“At this point of the year it’s hard, the end of your career starts flashing before your eyes,’ Dempsey said. “We’re aware of that and we want to stay out of that situation.’

La Salle was very patient to end the half, running the clock until Najee Walls drilled a straight-on 3-pointer with .3 seconds left.

That carried over in a big way into the third quarter.

“The play kind of broke down and I saw there was a little bit of time left for me to take a dribble, hesitate and take my jump shot,’ Walls said. “I practice that shot a lot and I was very confident and comfortable shooting it.

“It gave us a spark and really, just us coming together at half, we focused on our game plan and pushed the lead higher.’

After a quiet first half, senior Witherspoon came to life in the third. The Nyack College recruit scored seven and had three assists in the 17-8 Explorer period.

While he only had two points in the first half, Witherspoon was locked onto the Comets’ Clay Basalgya defensively.

“He took five shots, he had seven assists, I thought he dominated the game,’ Dempsey said. “He dominated the game defensively on their best natural scorer and some of his assists were just real daggers. When he gets into the lane and sees the floor and goes in under control, I’ll take him any day of the week. He’s got the heart of a lion.’

La Salle broke the game open with a 10-0 run midway through the third quarter where Witherspoon and Krmpotich scored or assisted the four baskets. The spurt gave La Salle a 44-25 edge with 4:35 left in the period. Walls said the Explorers felt good at that point, but not like the game was totally under their control. Having given up a lead in the first half, La Salle wanted to keep pushing.

Walls, who tied with Krmpotich for the team lead with 14 points, didn’t score in the third, but he helped close the game out. His three-point play early in the fourth put La Salle up 19, he assisted a 3-pointer then hit one of his own with 3:51 left that gave the Explorers a 58-38 lead and allowed them to empty the bench.

“We had to keep our foot on the pedal,’ Walls said. “We had let up a little in the second so we just wanted to get our foot back on the pedal and push that lead back up.’

La Salle’s press defense was a big factor in building that first lead, then extending it in the second half. Walls said the Explorers felt like they could pressure the Comets guards.

The point guard also credited the play of the big men which opened up the outside shots for the guards. Walls said there’s a good relationship on the floor between the frontcourt and backcourt and they’re able to feed off each other.

The Explorers are looking to get back to Hershey and now, they’re two wins away from doing just that.

“As a coach, you have to know when to push and when to prod,’ Dempsey said. “We’ve been trying to keep the practices light, keep them short and keep them mentally sharp and focused and wanting to come in the gym every day. I just love these guys and any coach knows, you’re with these kids all year round and you don’t want this to end.’

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