Penncrest prevails behind brotherly shove by Mills, defensive mates

RADNOR >> After the final whistle, gold medal around his neck, Chris Mills crouched on the “V” at center court of the Pavilion and took it all in.

Mills was one of Penncrest’s primary defenders tasked with shutting down Holy Cross-bound, 6-foot-8 forward Matt Faw Saturday. Mills’ new jewelry, as much as the 26 points scored by teammate Tyler Norwood, owed to the commitment Mills and his mates showed in transforming Faw from world-beater to non-factor.

Faw was limited to nine points and a scant one field-goal attempt in the fourth quarter — a desperation heave in the final seconds, at that — as Penncrest rallied to top Upper Merion, 39-37, in the District 1 Class 5A final.

Chris Mills (12) and his undersized teammates used tenacious defense to fluster Upper Merion big man Matt Faw (33) during Penncrest’s 39-37 victory in Saturday’s District 1 Class 5A boys basketball championship. (Digital First Media/Pete Bannan)

“It’s a huge game. They were going at us all night with the big guys,” Mills said. “We kept fighting back, eventually they wore down and we won.”

In broad strokes, the pregame storyline boiled down to tall vs. Ty — that is, an Upper Merion frontline boasting three players 6-foot-5 and taller against the singular scoring of Norwood.

Norwood executed his end of the bargain with a game-high 26 points — or two-thirds of the Lions’ output — including 13 in a feverish fourth quarter. But that would’ve been for naught if not for every ounce of defensive energy expounded by Mills and company.

Faw got different looks all night. Mills, the nominal Plan A, was saddled with two first-quarter fouls and sat most of the second. Manny Ruffin, who stands 6-foot-1, did step up, using his quickness to stay in front of Faw and his outsized toughness to negate the vertical disadvantage in the low blocks.

But throughout, the Lions collapsed multiple defenders on Faw whenever he touched the ball, a prudent strategy given the wreckage he’s wrought against Delco teams this postseason — 20 points against Strath Haven in the first round, 23 in upsetting top-seeded Chester in the quarters.

“It definitely got to him,” Ruffin said. “Doing that against someone for the whole game’s got to wear on you. The coaches, the teammates, everyone did a great job of recognizing that and helping me out. We took him out of the game.”

“They played really well, help defense and in the right positions,” Faw said. “It was hard once we got the ball to get it back out, and you can’t really do anything when you’ve got three guys on you. … It was hard to get looks, it was hard to get going. Credit to them, they played the post really well.”

Underpinning the varied coverages and help-side defense was an inherent toughness not always associated with the Lions but enacted with aplomb to deter Faw.

“Before (the game) today, we said we’re a tough team,” Mills said. “We may be small, but we’ll bang around a little bit. When we started banging around, I don’t think he liked it and backed off.”

PHOTO GALLERY: Penncrest vs. Upper Merion

Upper Merion’s breakdown was two-fold. Yes, Faw was dissuaded from aggressively seeking shots. He put up just nine, five in the second half, mostly on quick two-dribble drives to the baseline to hoist up mid-range jumpers.

But his teammates also failed to find him. He didn’t get a touch with the Vikings up 37-33 when Andrew Persaud (12 points) fired an ill-advised 3. Up 37-36, after (what else?) a Norwood triple, he was denied a touch on a telegraphed pass picked off by Mills.

That so few crucial possessions should directly involve the Vikings’ top player speaks to Penncrest’s effective deterrence but also too much timidity by Faw’s teammates in pressing the issue.

“They just knew the right guy to send to double the post,” Faw said.

The game plan worked to perfection. UM’s fellow big, Ethan Miller, had some success with nine points, but his day was blighted by 1-for-5 shooting at the line. The third big man, 6-5 Anthony Sheppard, was rooted to the bench most of the second half as the Vikings went small to match Penncrest rather than spur mismatches.

The stinginess by the Lions made it academic that neither Ruffin nor Mills scored. On a team with such discreet and respected roles, they executed theirs to the fullest.

“We take a lot of pride in that,” Ruffin said. “We never let anyone push us around. We’re a lot of tough kids. We’re all brothers. We love each other, we play for the guy next to us and that’s really what got us here.”

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