Johnston helps Clippers get in gear against Sun Valley

CHESTER >> In many ways, the skinny one-point edge that Chester carried into halftime over Sun Valley Saturday night was the least of the ways in which the Clippers’ execution deviated from the game plan.

The Clippers’ defense wasn’t as suffocating as usual. The jump shots the Clippers settled for were too frequent and too wayward. And 90 percent of Chester’s points came from three players, an uncharacteristic lack of balance for a program that prides itself on sharing the wealth.

So knowing that something had to change after the break, senior forward Timothy Johnston figured, why not be the source of that improvement?

Chester forward Karell Watkins, left, tries to back down into the lane against Sun Valley’s Marvin Freeman during the teams’ District 1 Class 5A quarterfinal game at Chester High Saturday. (Mikey Reeves/For Digital First Media)

Johnston scored 11 points in the third quarter and 13 in the second half as No. 3 Chester pulled away from sixth-seeded Sun Valley, 69-56, in the District 1 Class 5A quarterfinals.

The win books Chester (18-6) a spot in the District 1 semifinals Wednesday at Temple against No. 2 Bishop Shanahan and a berth in the PIAA tournament. Sun Valley (17-7) drops into playbacks, where it will grab one of the seven states spots on offer with a win in either of its next two games, starting with Ches-Mont rival and seventh-seeded Rustin in Aston Wednesday.

Johnston was the spark that lit the Clippers in the second half, turning a 29-28 edge at the break into a 22-11 advantage in the third quarter.

“The first half, we didn’t come out the way we should’ve,” Johnston said. “We didn’t play how we usually play. We had to turn it up on defense. Hustle-wise, we weren’t out there like that. So in the second half, they told us to step it up as a team, make sure we have each other’s back and give it your all every play.”

Johnston provided a boost on both sides of the court. He hit all five of his field-goal looks in the quarter and was 6-for-8 from the field overall. Offensively, he perpetuated the Clippers’ height advantage, a mantle that was taken up from Karell Watkins in the first half. The sophomore forward provided 10 of his 12 points in the first to go with seven rebounds and two blocks. After spending much of the opening 16 minutes on the bench watching Watkins, starter Johnston picked up the slack.

“His boost really helped us out,” point guard Michael Smith said of Johnston. “Down low, he had an advantage. He was the beast down there, so we kept feeding it to him, feeding it to him, and every time he scored.”

Johnston added seven rebounds — contributing to a 38-24 Chester edge on the glass — and four steals, as Sun Valley coughed up 14 turnovers.

Smith did plenty to fuel the offense, leading the way with 27 points. He added three assists, as Chester dished 16 helpers on 25 baskets. Brian Randolph added nine points, six in the first quarter.

Smith often provided the reply to Vinny DeAngelo, who set the tempo for a Sun Valley team not cowed in the least by playing at the Fred Pickett Memorial Gymnasium.

“Our mindset coming in was we’re not coming here for moral victories,” DeAngelo said. “We’re coming here to win. We’re going to stay focused and zone out everything else and stay within ourselves.”

In the first half, that meant offensive balance. Marvin Freeman scored 11 points, and Isaac Kennon added four to augment DeAngelo’s eight as five Vanguards scored.

After the break, DeAngelo was often left by his lonesome. Part of the reason was the effectiveness of the strategy, with DeAngelo getting to the bucket at will on the way to 29 points, via an assortment of drives, jump-stops and pull-ups. But where he scored 21 points after the break, the rest of the Vanguards chipped in just eight.

The muzzling of other options owed in part to Chester adjusting its defense to block lanes to the rim.

“My mindset is that no one can guard me,” said DeAngelo, who is 19 points shy of 1,000 for his career. “As soon as I get that first step, I want to try to get him on my hip and create for my teammates.”

“First half, we didn’t really play as much help defense,” Smith said. “Our weak-side defense was a little off, so it really took us out of the game. Second half, as we came out, we started playing help defense more, guys started sliding out more and getting blocks, so it really helped us out.”

Freeman finished with 14 points, though he only attempted one 3-pointer after half, and Kennon tallied six.
Neither team led by more than five in a back-and-forth first half, but Chester stretched its edge to 10 with a 13-4 run to open the second half from which Sun Valley never recovered.

Chester’s win completes one part of its journey back from a 1-5 record and the edge of the abyss in coach Keith Taylor’s first season. The Del Val champions have won 17 of 18 games since the turn of 2018, and the adversity overcome on the way to states helps the Clippers savor the voyage.

“It makes it rewarding,” Smith said. “Starting out 1-5, we were the biggest underdogs. It made us want to get in the gym more and focus in and bring the effort, 100 percent effort. As games went on, we went on a 13-game winning streak that helped us out, and it helped us get confidence. And as we go on, we take one game at a time.”

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