O’Connell helps keep Episcopal rolling

HAVERFORD >> In mid-December, when leading scorer and two-time All-Delco forward Nick Alikakos went down with a knee injury, Jack O’Connell underwent the same self-evaluation as the rest of the Episcopal Academy teammates.

Episcopal Academy’s Conner Delaney drives between Haverford School’s Asim Richards and Jameer Nelson Jr. in the second half. Episcopal won 71-57. (Digital First Media/Pete Bannan)

The role they entered the season expecting to fill needed to evolve to fill the scoring void. O’Connell, a spot-up 3-point specialist, would need to morph from an ancillary threat to a primary contributor.

Six weeks later, Alikakos is back. And the phenomenal surge EA is enjoying owes as much to those surrounding Alikakos as the forward’s return.

O’Connell stepped to the fore Friday in spectacular fashion, draining all five of his 3-point looks in a 15-point outing as EA downed Haverford School, 71-57, to upend the title picture in the Inter-Ac that seemed secure just a week ago.
EA’s win is retribution for a 54-51 setback at home three weeks ago. A fifth straight win moves the Churchmen (13-9, 6-1) into sole possession of the league lead. Haverford School, which rode a 13-game win streak into this week, falls to a second-place tie with Germantown Academy at 5-2. GA beat Haverford Tuesday in a five-overtime classic, 100-98.

How quickly times have changed. Last time the rivals met, EA was mired in a stretch of two wins in 10, nine sans Alikakos due to an ankle sprain. Everyone was forced to step up, such that the Naval Academy commit returned to a much sharper team than he exited.

“I think that with Nick leaving, we were able to really better ourselves as basketball players in terms of the scoring roles,” senior forward Kyle Virbitsky said. “Now that he’s back, with those passes and short banks and things that we would miss, I think we’re a lot better at that. I think we’re better for having played without him for a little bit, but we’re happy to have him back.”

“Everyone had to step up a little bit and be aggressive and step up on offense,” O’Connell said. “Once Nick came back, it was the same but not to force anything, just be ready to shoot whenever I’m open, make cuts and make the open shots.”

That shined through everywhere on the roster Friday. Conner Delaney led the way with 23 points. Jack O’Reilly added eight points and six rebounds. Matt Dade contributed seven, and Virbitsky collected 10 boards to go with six points and as much floor burn as his 6-foot-4 frame could accommodate.

And then there was O’Connell, who hoisted five 3-pointers on the night. None so much as grazed the rim, including three devastating connects in the fourth quarter that took the starch out of Haverford’s comeback hopes.

“I think it was just the flow of the game,” O’Connell said. “We were getting open shots and knocking them down. We weren’t shooting from 45 feet. We were in rhythm and knocking them down.”

EA made eight of its 11 looks from 3-point range, reflecting not just accuracy but prudent shot selection. Delaney made both of his looks, a testament to his dedication to getting to the rim.

Haverford School’s Kharon Randolph, right, drives by EA’s Kyle Virbitsky Friday night. (Digital First Media/Pete Bannan)

Haverford, meanwhile, never recovered from a 15-3 deficit in the first quarter wrought by a poor shooting night. Kharon Randolph had the only field goal of that first frame more than six minutes in, and the deficit grew as large as 19 when EA blitzed a 12-5 run to start the second quarter.

Randolph, who scored 25 points, orchestrated a personal 7-0 run in the middle of the third within a larger 17-5 trend that got the Fords within seven. But they could crawl no closer.

“We cut it down to seven and we were back in the game,” Randolph said. “But it’s a game of runs. We made our run, they made their run and we didn’t make enough of them.”

The Fords (16-3, 5-2) have contended seriously for the Inter-Ac title in three of the last four seasons, a run that has produced a half-dozen Division I talents. Yet a first crown since 1999 remains elusive. They’ve forfeited control of the race this week, but can still secure a piece of the title should they win out and hope that EA stumbles (with a trip to Malvern Prep and GA still remaining).

The vivid gold banner trumpeting that drought hangs prominently in Haverford’s gym, and while the personnel (and coaching staff) has changed drastically, the distance between titles seems to loom large nights like Friday.

“We think about it but we go into every game thinking about that game,” Randolph said. “We don’t look ahead, we don’t look in the past. We just think about what’s coming next for us.”

The more pressing symptom Friday was a 3-for-17 night from 3-point range. Christian Ray, who was honored for his 1,000th career point before the game, tallied 17 to go with 11 rebounds as he and Randolph showed more initiative getting to the basket.

But the Fords were beaten on the boards in the first half by Virbitsky and company when the game was in the balance; the late surge on the glass only compounded a dour shooting night (37.9 percent). Ray was just 5-for-20 on the evening, and the Fords shot 10-for-20 from the line.

Episcopal Academy’s Nick Alikakos, center, goes up for a shot over Haverford School’s Asim Richards, left, and Christian Ray, right. Alikakos scored eight points as EA claimed a 71-57 win. (Digital First Media/Pete Bannan)

“The whole game, we were on the boards, we were on the floor,” Virbitsky said. “Those little things are kind of a big part of the reason why I succeed a little bit in basketball. … I’m the hustle guy who gets you some stops on defense and really try to get on the boards and get on the ground and I guess bring a tougher attitude to the game.”

The rapture for EA Friday, with a huge traveling support that stormed the court after the final whistle, included a moment of recognition for three of the seniors — Alikakos, Virbitsky and Delaney — with an early trip to the bench in the final minute. For a group whose nine losses are all by 10 points or fewer, the temptation to collapse without Alikakos was present.

But O’Connell, another of the team’s five seniors, had confidence that one way or another, the Churchmen would reach the level they were capable of.

“We weren’t fearful at all,” he said. “It was more just that everyone had to step up, and we knew what we had to get done. … We were going to be ready when it came to the Inter-Ac, and we’re ready now.”

Ready, perhaps, for a championship.

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