Cheltenham holds off Spring-Ford, earns 1st PIAA berth since 2006

CHELTENHAM >> Coach John Timms was unaware of the last time the Cheltenham boys basketball team qualified for the PIAA Tournament until the Panthers had the chance to end that 11-year drought Tuesday night.

“Coming up to it, I was receiving texts because I wasn’t necessarily aware of the absence and how long it’s been since it’s my fourth year,” Timms said. “So I wasn’t caught up in depth in the history outside of knowing we never won districts since ’68. So once it got closer to the game I understood the magnitude of this game.”

Cheltenham last state appearance was 2006. Now when that question is brought up Timms can confidently reply with 2017 for the answer.

Balanced on offense – four players scored in double figures – the eighth-seeded Panthers held off a 3-point barrage by Ryan Fitzpatrick in the fourth quarter and pulled away from No. 9 Spring-Fordfor a 66-52 District 1-6A second round victory.

“It feels good. Definitely feels good after last year losing in the first round,” Cheltenham senior forward Trevonn Pitts said. “We took it a little easy thinking that we was just going to win instead of just playing hard. So it’s definitely a good feeling. Cheltenham hasn’t been in states in a long time, hadn’t had a run, so it’s definitely good to bring that energy back around the school.”

The Panthers (18-5) avoided an upset in this district opener – they had a first-round bye – to advance to Friday’s quarterfinal round  and a visit with top-seeded Perkiomen Valley, which bounced Cheltenham in the 2016 District 1-4A first round. PV outlasted No. 16 Garnet Valley 68-60 in overtime.

“It’s a good feeling, I just want revenge to be honest with you,” said Pitts of facing the Vikings, who as a 20 seed last year beat the No. 13 Panthers 49-45. “So it’s going to be vice-versa, they came here and beat us, hopefully we go there and we beat them. That’s basically what it’s about as of right now.”

Pitts’ dunk put Cheltenham up 53-43 in the fourth before Fitzpatrick caught fire from long range – hitting a trio of 3-pointers to get the Rams (18-8) to within 56-52.

After a Panthers turnover, a long pass downcourt was intended for Fitzpatrick, but Pitts got to the ball first, tossed it behind his back to deflect it off the Spring-Ford senior and out of bounds, giving possession to the Panthers.

Cheltenham proceeded to put the contest away at the foul line – making 10-of-12 free throws in the final 1:34, turning a competitive postseason contest into a 14-point victory.

“We practice free throws all week and if we didn’t make them, we ran,” junior Ahmad Bickley. “So we practiced that all week.”

Bickley paced the Panthers with 17 points with Pitts adding 16 points. Jack Clark scored nine of his 15 points in the first half while Rodney Carson finished with 11 points.

“That’s how it’s been pretty much all season. We get nice offense from Jack and Tre and I get my little points when I can,” Bickley said. “But I usually try to get everyone else involved first and then get my points.”

Fitzpatrick had a game-high 25 points, hitting four 3-pointers in the fourth as he scored 14 of the Rams’ 15 points in the period.

“If you’re looking at it from a neutral side it looks like Ryan Fitzpatrick got hot and he close it. But to me that’s the ebb and flow of the game,” Timms said. “Ryan Fitzpatrick is good. I watched a lot of tape of him. So if you expect him to miss shots for four quarters, you’re didn’t do your homework.”

Nestor Diaz scored 10 points for the Rams, who were trying to reach the quarterfinals – and earn a PIAA berth – in consecutive seasons and for the third time in four years.

Spring-Ford can still make states, but not must do so through 9th/10th place playbacks. The Rams host Garnet Valley Friday with the loser side’s season over.

Diaz gave Spring-Ford its last lead Tuesday as he three put the visitors up 21-20. Clark responded by scoring five straight points, the start of a 10-2 Cheltenham run that Bickley capped with his three-point play off a drive down the lane to make it 30-23 Panthers with 1:02 left in the half.

“I think we showed great resiliency,” Timms said. “We talked about that. When you get a bye, every game is probably going to come down to one or two possessions if you’re playing way because every opponent you play is going to be as good as you if not better. So we can in here expecting this to be a two-possession game and that how we prepared for the playoffs. If we happen to win by seven or nine or three possessions, that’s a bonus.

“So when we get down or we’re seeing them close to two and staff we’re saying we need more separation just so the staff can relax.

After his steal, Fitzpatrick connected with Chucky Drummond for two, cutting the halftime margin to 30-25.

Pitts opened scoring in the second half with a two-handed slam but a Noah Baker three-point play and an Austin Hokanson bucket had Spring-Ford within two. But that was as close as the Rams could get. After a Diaz free throw at 4:32 made it 34-31 in the third, Cheltenham collected seven on the next nine points for a 41-33 advantage.

A Diaz basket had Spring-Ford down 41-37 before Pitts scored and was fouled – he did not make the and-1 – with just 0.7 seconds left , sending Cheltenham into the fourth up six.

“Definitely last year was on my mind, for sure,” Pitts said. “Coach (Timms) he told us this is your team, make sure you do better than the last seniors that left. Every senior that come up make you do better than last seniors. So the last seniors they stopped first round so now that we win basically our first-round, I achieved a goal that he wanted me to achieve.”

Fitzpatrick’s first trey of the fourth had the margin at 45-41 but Cheltenham proceeded to go on an 8-2 run Pitts ended with a dunk for the 53-43 lead.

Fitzpatrick 3-point shooting got the Rams back within four, but Spring-Ford would stay stuck on 52 and the Panthers sealed the PIAA bid at the line. Bickley made both ends of a 1-and-1 at 1:34 and 1:17 as Cheltenham connected on eight straight free throws to lead 64-52 with 50.1 seconds remaining.

No. 8 Cheltenham 66, No. 9 Spring-Ford 52
Spring-Ford        13 12 12 15 — 52
Cheltenham       15 15 13 23 — 66
Spring-Ford: Ryan Fitzpatrick 9 3-3 25; Nestor Diaz 4 1-2 10; Noah Baker 2 2-3 6; Austin Kokanson 2 2-3 6; Chucky Drummond 2 0-0 5. Totals 19 8-11 52.
Cheltenham:  Ahmad Bickley 5 6-7 17; Trevon Pitts 7 2-4 16; Jack Clark 5 3-5 15; Rodney Carson 3 4-4 11; Kyin Healey 2 0-0 4; Lonce Scott 1 0-2 2; Jaelen McGlone 0 1-2 1. Totals 23 16-24 66.
3-pointers: SF-Fitzpatrick 4, Diaz, Drummond; C-Clark 2, Bickley, Carson.

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