DOWNINGTOWN >> As if holding a season opener in the first week of February wasn’t unusual enough, the Downingtown West boys basketball squad also celebrated Senior Night on Friday at Wagner Gymnasium, which is normally at season’s end.
But things have been anything but normal in the last 11 months.
A two-plus week shutdown due to COVID-19 delayed the debut, but the Whippets showed flashes, which was more than enough to carry the squad to a 58-50 triumph over a stubborn Avon Grove squad in Ches-Mont National action.
“It felt amazing to finally get out there after a long break. Our guys were ready to go,” said star guard Dylan Blair.
“Being our first g topowerame, we just wanted to get our feet wet and get into a rhythm,” added West head coach Stuart Ross. “There were some stretches where we did some good things, but there was also some things we need to work on.”
Other than the opening minutes, the Whippets (1-0) led wire-to-wire, and looked poised to knock out the Red Devils (0-2) on several occasions, only to see the visitors roar back.
“We preach every day that we don’t ever quit,” said Avon Grove head coach Ikeem Mays. “We don’t worry about the scoreboard, we just play hard until the buzzer.”
With a halftime mandate to get the ball inside to 6-foot-9 sophomore center Jake Warren, Downingtown West scored the first nine points of the third quarter to open a 34-17 lead. But two 3-pointers by Tyler Newman sparked a 15-6 response by the Devils to cut the margin to eight heading into the fourth.
The Whippets then staged one final spurt to put it away. Senior Ryan Dever scored six and Warren added a 3-pointer to make it 51-34. And even though Avon Grove’s Reece Ziegler scored 13 of his 18 in the fourth, it wasn’t enough.
“We had a few uncharacteristic emotional outbursts that we don’t tolerate here at West, but we tried to stay mentally tough,” Ross said. “I told the kids the poem ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling. It talks about times like this and how you deal with it and strive through adversity.
“I thought we were a little sloppy closing it out, but don’t want to be playing your best basketball in the first game of the season.”
Just a sophomore, Blair led all scorers with 26 points, including an electric second quarter, where he poured in 11 points and spearheaded an 11-1 rally. The son of West Chester men’s basketball coach Damien Blair would have had 30 if not for an off day at the line.
“(Blair) is an unreal player. He’s a tough matchup so we just wanted to make things as difficult for him as possible,” Mays said.
“The foul shots are probably the result of us having a couple weeks off,” Ross added. “But we have very high expectations for Dylan. We feel that he can do a lot of things as far as controlling our team as the point guard and being a scorer.
“We like when he is attacking and getting downhill, and that’s what he did in the second quarter.”
Dever and Sean Kaiser chipped in eight points each and Warren scored all of his nine points in the second half.
“It was a big get for us to get Jake back home from (Archbishop) Carroll. We know what he is capable of doing and we expect some big things from him too,” Ross said.
“When you have a big guy like that, especially against a smaller team, it’s very important to get them the ball,” Blair added. “So when the defense collapses, there are easier buckets on the perimeter.”
West forced a total of 21 turnovers, and quite a few went for easy buckets at the other end.
“Turnovers are definitely a big part of our loss,” Mays acknowledged. “It was little things we have to clear up on our end, but you have to give credit to (West). They pressured us and forced us into mistakes we normally wouldn’t make.”
Lefty guard Aiden Violette finished with 14 points and Newman added 11 off the bench for the Devils.
“When we are playing our game and fighting, we can play with anybody,” Mays said.
“I’m confident in this group, and I am confident they are going to bounce back. We will continue to improve.”
As for the Whippets, they have very little time to digest Friday’s outcome. West will play archrival Downingtown East on Saturday afternoon.
“Honestly, I’d give us a C+,” Blair said. “I know the potential of our team is very good, but potential just means you haven’t done anything yet.”
Downingtown West 58, Avon Grove 50
AVON GROVE – Hunter 0 2-4 2; Bozman 1 0-0 3; Ziegler 6 4-6 18; Violette 4 3-4 14; Newman 4 0-1 11; Traa 1 0-0 2. Totals 15 9-15 50.
DOWNINGTOWN WEST – Blair 10 4-9 26; Dever 4 0-0 8; Hardin 1 0-0 3; Kaiser 1 6-7 8; Miree 2 0-0 4; Warren 4 0-0 9. Totals 22 10-17 58.
Avon Grove 5 12 15 17 – 50
Downingtown West 12 15 15 18 – 58
3-pointers: Bozman, Ziegler 2, Violette 2, Newman 2, Blair 2, Hardin, Warren.