ROYERSFORD >> Pope John Paul II head coach Jack Flanagan led the student section to the entrance of the team’s locker room before making a hasty entrance to grab his team.
Rich Dunham sprinted out the door first, his teammates followed closely behind before they all were mobbed by a jubilant student section.
It was the perfect cap to a night that had for all purposes, gone against PJP for the majority of a winner-get-in clash with Pottstown Tuesday night.
That is, until Dunham led the charge.
The senior’s performance shined on the team’s senior night as he emerged from a pedestrian first half, scoring 14 of his game-high 17 points in the second half while Robbie Girone and Luke Moratelli hit critical, late-game 3-pointers as the Golden Panthers came back from a 10-point deficit to come away with a 43-40 victory over visiting Pottstown to claim the No. 2 seed in the Frontier Division and a berth in the PAC-10 Final Four.
“I just turned it on after the first half and started making shots,” Dunham said. “I wasn’t making shots in the first half but I didn’t let it get to me. I just kept my head up and started making plays.”
PJP advances to the Final Four after a year hiatus and will face the No. 1 seed from the Liberty Division Spring-Ford in the second game of the PAC-10 semifinals Friday night at 7:45 p.m. at Spring-Ford.
“It (making the Final Four) is really big for us because in the past years they’ve always made it, but not last year,” Dunham said. “We really wanted it this year, we wanted a 23rd game, and we got it.”
Pottstown sees its PAC-10 season come to a close after two consecutive wins put the Trojans in a position to claim their first Final Four berth since 2010. Malik Brown headed the Trojans with a 15-point effort while Aaron Diamond added 10 points and eight boards in helping the team build a 28-18 lead early in the third.
“I wanted them to experience a Final Four because they would hold on to that for the rest of their lives, they truly would …” Pottstown head coach Cal Benfield said. …”Congratulations to Jack (Flanagan), congratulations to his boys as they play Spring-Ford. I’m sure they will do well.”
For the first 20 minutes, it seemed as if Benfield and his team would be able to experience that thrill. After a defensively charged first half saw both teams head into the half deadlocked at 16, the Trojans put together a mini-run, spearheaded by the tenacious play from Brown, Diamond and Shamir Edwards (eight points) to build the aforementioned 10-point lead in the third.
But after Edwards’ huge block on a driving Dunham, the PJP senior took control.
Dunham converted on back-to-back buckets to bring the game to a 6-point level before hitting 3-of-4 from the line to pull the game to within 32-30 at the end of the third.
From there, the 3-pointers began to fall.
After back-to-back buckets from Brown and Diamond made it 36-30, Moratelli drained a 3-pointer from the top of the key to cut into the lead. Two minutes later, trailing 39-35 with 1:04 left, it was Dunham who answered with a 3-pointer to make it a one-point game before Girone capped off the 3-point assault with a tide-turning three from the wing with 27 ticks remaining.
“He plays within himself,” Flanagan said of Girone. “He does the things that he can do. He’s a smart player that can guard someone and can knock down a shot when we need him to.”
It was one that sent the crowd in a frenzy, one that Pottstown couldn’t recover from after two failed 3-point attempts as the clock expired and sent the PJP bench storming onto the court, knowing that this night was one they’d remember.
“We came out hard this whole season,” Dunham said. “We’ve worked from Day 1. As hard as we’ve worked, we came through.”
NOTES >> Tuesday night’s win marked the 100th win for PJP head coach Jack Flanagan … PJP honored its seniors, Eric Wood, Dunham, Moratelli, Girone, Adam Donmoyer and Charlie Vasas in a pre-game ceremony. … Moratelli finished with nine points in the win; Girone finished with eight points.