Cheltenham stays together, tops Abington in thriller

CHELTENHAM >> More than once, Cheltneham coach John Timms had to stop himself from jumping the layup line with his players Thursday night.

It would have been a sight, seeing Timms in his dark blue sport coat and blue and gold bowtie putting in a finger-roll, but he kept himself in coach mode. That didn’t stop him from enjoying the spectacle his team put on with Abington over the next two hours.

Behind a complete team effort, with four guys in double figures, Cheltenham topped its backyard rivals 79-76 in a wildly entertaining game in front of a packed house.

“It’s good basketball and whenever you can get to witness good basketball or even be a part of it, for myself on the sideline, it gets the adrenaline running,” Timms said. “As a former player, (Abington coach) Charles Grasty is a former player, I’m sure right before this game they felt the energy of this crowd and wanted to get in the layup line because I did and my coaches and were talking and we all said this is what you live for.”

It wouldn’t be fair to single out one Panther as the hero because there were too many big moments from too many different guys. Abington, which never folded despite trailing most of the game, got a masterful performance out of sophomore Eric Dixon, who scored 36 points.

Ahmad Bickley, Cheltenham’s junior point guard, turned in his second straight double-double with 12 points and 12 assists, playing the most understated role of the game. Not only did he hound Abington guards Rob Young and Robbie Heath all game, but he made sure the right guys got the ball early in the game so it would pay off later.

One of those beneficiaries was 6-foot-5 junior Jack Clark, who scored a team-high 22 points. He made his first two shots and kept the oven on all night, cooking up a couple of key shots at key points.

“My shots were hitting,” the wiry wing said. “I was looking to get the team involved because not only was I hitting but Tre(vonn Pitts), Tim (Spencer) and Ahmad, they were all hitting and doing their thing. It was a team effort.”

Pitts scored 21 points, including the final go-ahead layup late in the fourth quarter while Spencer dropped in 15, going 4-of-4 from the foul line in the fourth quarter. It was evident right from the start that the game was going to be up-tempo and then some.

The Panthers opened up a 10-5 lead, led 22-17 at the end of the first quarter and got up to 31-21 with 4:37 left in the second quarter. Abington, riding Dixon, battled back, finishing the half on a 17-11 run with the big man scoring 12 of those 17 and assisting three more.

Cheltenham got a buzzer beater from Tim Myarick — in just to keep any starters from picking up a late foul — to take a 42-38 lead to the break.

“It’s Abington-Cheltenham,” Grasty said. “They’re going to play hard, they made some shots, they were on fire. We felt like in order for them to beat us, they would have to make those kind of shots and they did, so kudos to them. Our guys know the mistakes we made and we’ll correct them.”

Dixon was borderline outrageous in the first half, scoring 23 points and missing just once in nine tries. For the game, he shot 14-of-17, but cramped up in the fourth quarter.

While Dixon was scoring, his teammates were held somewhat in check. Lucas Monroe had 15 and Robbie Heath 14, below his average but Cheltenham held Rob Young, Eric Dougherty and Joe O’Brien to a combined 11 points.

“Eric had 23 points at half and we were up four, he possibly could have had his best high school game and they still lose, so that works in our favor,” Timms said. “As long as he’s scoring and other guys weren’t scoring, we were winning. We wanted to limit Rob Young’s points, limit Dougherty’s touches and make Robbie Heath work for every shot he took. The guys stuck to the defensive philosophy.”

Cheltenham’s Jack Clark tries to get a shot past Abington’s Lucas Monroe during their game on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2016. (Bob Raines/Digital First Media)

The Panthers tried to double Dixon as much as possible and contested most of his looks but the sophomore just kept burying them.

“He’s not going to make every single shot,” Clark said. “We can live with the shots he made tonight.”

Timms said he’s not afraid to unleash his guys on offense because it forces them to go play defense. To him, a shot is always better than a turnover and his guys do a good job of finding a good shot more often than not.

Abington kept knocking on the door, but in the first three quarters, couldn’t get over the hump. The Ghosts got within 33-32 and 51-50, plus a few other one-score spots but every time, the Panthers answered.

“We just had to calm down and listen to coach Timms, see what he had to say and then go out and perform,” Clark said. “Going to the basket, drawing fouls and making free throws, that’s Cheltenham’s game right now.”

Bickley buried a 3-pointer to put Cheltenham up 70-64 with 5:02 left, then Abington came roaring back. Young split a pair of free throws, Dixon scored and then Monroe forced a turnover, got fouled going up and made the bucket through the intentional foul.

From there, the sophomore guard hit both foul shots, putting Abington in front 71-70 and the Ghosts scored the next four points to take a 75-70 lead with 2:19 left. Critically in that stretch, Bickley was tagged for two technical fouls, removing him from the game with 2:44 left.

The first was a double technical with Heath on a loose ball foul, then the second came on a dead ball foul right after. Losing their floor leader didn’t deter Cheltenham, it seemed to give the Panthers a surge of energy.

Spencer got fouled, starting a 5-0 run of foul shots that tied the game 75-75 with 1:19 left. Monroe split a pair at the line, putting Abington back up one with 1:10 left, but Dixon missed a pair with 35 seconds left, the fourth and fifth misses as a team from the line in the quarter.

Cheltenham dribbled past halfcourt, Timms called timeout then he designed a play to get Pitts the ball matched up on Dixon, who had four fouls. Like he’s done all season, Pitts delivered, driving in and dropping in the go-ahead shot with 12.1 left.

“Right now, people are backing off Tre and daring him to shoot, playing him like Rajon Rondo,” Timms said. “I always remind Tre, Rondo was an All-Star and he still never took the jumpshot, so don’t let them bait you into the jumpshot. You can shoot, but you don’t have to. We wanted him to attack Eric Dixon at the basket.”

Clark admitted he was nervous with so much time left as Abington called timeout. The Ghosts inbounded and tried to get the ball to Dixon, but the Panthers broke it up, the ball went off Abington and Spencer went to the line, canning two to give his team a three-point lead with 3.7 seconds left.

“We were doubling down on Eric and trying to force Lucas or Robbie to take a shot outside,” Clark said. “It was kind of tipped and Eric wasn’t able to grab it, so it hit off him and rolled out of bounds.”

Heath’s shot from past halfcourt was short and the Panthers celebrated the win. Neither team has much time to dwell, with Abington off to Harry S Truman on Friday. Cheltenham has Wissahickon, but will be without Bickley, who by rule, is suspended for one game.

“I’m one who thinks every game is tough,” Timms said. “We don’t get a night off. I can’t get home fast enough to start preparing.”

Cheltenham 79, Abington 76
Abington 17 21 20 18 – 76
Cheltenham 22 20 20 17 – 79
Abington (76): Eric Dixon 14 6-8 36, Lucas Monroe 5 5-7 15, Robbie Heath 2 10-10 14, Rob Young 1 1-2 4, Joe O’Brien 2 1-2 5, Eric Dougherty 1 0-0 2. Nonscoring: Darious Brown. Totals: 25 23-29 76
Cheltenham (79): Jack Clark 9 2-4 22, Trevonn Pitts 7 7-11 21, Tim Spencer 5 4-4 15, Rodney Carson 2 0-0 5, Kyin Healey 1 0-0 2, Tim Myarick 1 0-0 2. Nonscoring: Lonce Scott. Totals: 30 13-19 79
3-pointers: A – Dixon 2, Young; C – Bickley 2, Clark 2, Spencer, Carson.

Top Photo: Cheltenham’s Trevonn Pitts lays up a shot past Abington’s Joseph O’Brien during their game on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017. (Bob Raines/Digital First Media)

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