Phoenixville tops Upper Merion in OT, keeps hopes of PAC playoff berth

PHOENIXVILLE >> The seven Phoenixville senior boys basketball players wanted to put on an impressive show in their regular season finale Thursday night at home against Upper Merion.

And the Phantoms, who are still clinging to hopes for the fifth and final Pioneer Athletic Conference Final Five playoff seed, rallied from an 11-point deficit after three quarters to stage a 63-59 overtime victory against the Vikings in a Frontier Division matchup.

The contest was deadlocked at 52-all at the end of regulation time. Upper Merion (7-2 PAC Frontier, 8-4 PAC overall), the first-place squad in the division, held a 45-34 lead against Phoenixville after three quarters. But the Phantoms (7-3, 8-5) utilized an 18-7 surge in the fourth quarter to lock it up at 52.

Spurred by a career-high 30 points from Avery Close and 19 more by Shyheim Abernathy, Phoenixville entertained the large, vocal home crowd with a fine performance on its Senior Night.

Phoenixville’s Shyheim Abernathy banks it off the glass for two over Upper Merion’s Anthony Shepperd on Thursday. (Barry Sankey – For DFM)

Close, who managed just one field goal in the first half, caught fire in the second half to produce 28 additional points. He ended the night with five 3-pointers, shot 7-for-10 at the free throw line and also contributed four blocked shots and three assists on his line.

The 6-6 senior discussed his turnaround afterward.

“I had a rough first half,” said Close, who finished with his seventh double-double in the last nine games. “But I got going the rest of the way. I got a couple layups to build my confidence. Then once I hit the first three off the glass, I kept letting it fly.”

Phoenixville still needs a loss by Liberty Division foe Norristown against Boyertown Friday night in order to qualify for the Final Five playoffs which get underway next week.

Abernathy, who scored all six of Phoenixville’s points during the first quarter, wound up with two 3-pointers and also retrieved 10 rebounds for another double-double. Zion Small added nine points, including a pair of second-period 3-pointers and a foul shot in the fourth.

Phoenixville’s Shyheim Abernathy tries to create space while Upper Merion’s Anthony Shepherd defends. (Barry Taglieber – For DFM)

The Phantoms’ pressure zone defense throughout the night forced numerous Upper Merion turnovers that Phoenixville capitalized on at the opposite end of the floor. Nasir Green, Phil Meszaros, Hunter Herschell and Dalton Jowder were instrumental in that defensive cause.

“We talked before the game about this being an emotional night,” said Phoenixville coach Eric Burnett. “It is a collection of memories these seniors have as a group from when they were young kids. They can add this to their memory box. They stuck together when we were down nine and never gave up.”

Phoenixville trailed 47-39 with 6:21 left in the fourth quarter before clicking on all cylinders at both ends of the court. Upper Merion still led 52-46 with 4:12 remaining, but the Phantoms’ defense shut the Vikings out the rest of the way in regulation time.

Abernathy hit a free throw that pulled the Phantoms within a point at 52-51 with 1:20 left, and Small grabbed a key rebound and sank a subsequent foul shot to knot the game at 52-all with 1:16 showing. Meszaros then made a pivotal steal to give Phoenixville possession with 25 seconds left in the fourth quarter. The Phantoms ran out the clock and missed a last-second jumper, which led to the four-minute overtime session.

“We knew coming into the season, Avery was going to have a big year,” said Burnett. “He is such a hard worker and he took on the role. We got energy off the bench in our last game.

Upper Merion’s Joe Breece looks for a passing lane around the defense of Phil Meszaros and Brendan Jenkins during Thursday night’s game. (Barry Taglieber – For DFM)

“Shy has played great ball the last several games. He is getting his teammates involved. You can really see the difference, and he is another good flow of the game. He has provided leadership and intensity.”

Phoenixville finished 13-0 during the regular season a year ago, but graduated 1,000-point scorer and leader Christian Kelly (Kutztown University) and some other key seniors. Yet the Phantoms have responded with another fine campaign that is still not over. Even if they don’t make the Final Five, Phoenixville will still play in the District 1 Class 5A tournament that gets underway Feb. 22.

Upper Merion was led by Ethan Miller and Chris Carita with 21 points apiece. Carita also nailed five 3-pointers.

Phoenixville’s senior players include Close, Abernathy, Green, Herschel, Meszaros, Jowder and Colin Hook.

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