CHESTER — Chichester’s boys basketball team arrived at the Fred Pickett Memorial Gymnasium Tuesday evening with its share of the Del Val Championship secure, and with its postseason fate secure, no matter what transpired over the next 32 minutes. Both were statements that their hosts couldn’t make.
But the Eagles also knew a few more facts – the 30-plus years since they’d last beaten Chester, the 70-some consecutive losses, the big 0 in the win column at Chester all-time in a series (can you really call it a rivalry?) dating back more than a half-century. Finishing the regular season that way – with an outright title, with a bit of history, and maybe with an unthinkable finger in the eye to Chester’s playoff hopes – was the only way a special senior class could envision it ending.
Akhir Keys’ corner 3-pointer with 12.7 seconds left and some dogged defense to repel three Chester chances to win it earned Chichester a 55-54 win and the outright title.
It’s the first time Chichester (18-3, 6-1) has won the Del Val since 1993 and just its sixth crown overall. The Eagles beat Chester for the first time since 1986-87, ending a string of 73 consecutive losses. In the process, they may have dealt a fatal blow to Chester’s chances of making the District 1 Class 6A playoffs.
“They always get the best of us, but they didn’t this time,” Zaiyin Keys said. “We ended the drought. … It feels amazing. We re-wrote history.”
A win by Chester (11-10, 5-3) would’ve split the Del Val title three ways, Penn Wood also getting a share (in what would’ve been a bizarre division where each team beat one of the co-champs twice and lost to the other twice.) More crucially, Chester needed wins and help in the District 1 rankings, entering the day 26th in the standings, outside of the 24-team field and behind a clog of Central League teams. Wins over Chi and Saturday against Chester Charter Scholars Academy (in a late schedule addition), plus the sizeable bonus points from teams with a combined 33 wins, would’ve gotten them there.
But Tuesday’s loss narrows the Clippers’ pathway almost to nothing, meaning a program that has missed states just three times in the last four decades is likely not even to make districts.
“The goal was to come in aggressive, protect home court and play with energy and play like some dogs,” Chester guard Kyree Womack said. “We came up a little short at the end. They hit a big 3, we didn’t capitalize at the end. We made a couple of minor mistakes.”
The level of competition fit the stakes – always intense, rarely pretty. A 9-2 run by Chichester early in the third quarter, sparked by an Akhir Keys 3-pointer, gave the Eagles their largest lead at 34-28. But Chester charged back with a 7-0 spurt, Breilynd White capping it with a floater in the lane.
The Clippers created spaced in the fourth with a 46-40 lead, when Dante Atkinson found Vincent Coleman rolling to the glass. But Chester couldn’t keep Chichester’s shooters down long.
While the Eagles were 5-for-17 from beyond the arc, both Keys stepped up big time. Zaiyin Keys came off a down screen to bury a 3 from the right corner to gouge out more than half of a 50-45 deficit. He got the rest after a steal and two free throws, one of eight ties and 10 lead changes.
Chester’s primary shooter never got going. With Akhir Keys as his constant shadow, Terrence Cobb shot just 1-for-11 from the field. His only made basket was a 28-footer in the first quarter, and the long-range marksman attempted just three 3-pointers after burning the Eagles for 28 points in the last meeting. Cobb also missed the front end of a 1-and-1 in the last minute with a chance to put Chester up by four.
Chester compensated with the dribble-drive of Womack, who tallied 21 points, and White (12 points). Jerry Young chipped in 10 points on 5-for-6 shooting, though the Clippers didn’t feed the post nearly enough.
“We just didn’t get in rhythm,” Womack said. “I feel like we didn’t get in rhythm to find different sets.”
Akhir Keys eventually got going. He tallied a game-high 18 points, including three second-half 3-pointers. Sayed did most of the damage in the first three quarters, where he scored all 17 of his points, plus six rebounds and eight assists. But when his drives to the dish dried up, Keys stepped up his shooting.
He put Chi ahead with a second-chance triple, assisted by Sayed, on the first possession of the fourth. In the final two minutes, the teams went back and forth, a Womack floater answered by two Vince Wildrick free throws, then two at the line from White with 1:34 left to nudge Chester ahead, 54-52.
But Keys, whose buzzer-beating triple sent the first meeting to overtime before Chester prevailed, pulled out the magic again. Sayed drove and kicked to his classmate, ready to shoot in front of a Chichester bench that would soon erupt.
“I was like, oh man, he actually hit it,” Zaiyin Keys, the less confident of the twins, said. “I was ready to get the rebound.”
“I knew it was going in,” Sayed said. “I trusted him. And when I saw it go in, my eyes lit up.”
Chester had chances to win it, pushing up to midcourt with 8.7 ticks left. A Womack runner was swatted by reserve forward Derrick Robertson, and Cobb collected the rebound only to come up short on a mid-range jumper. The refs put 0.6 seconds left on the clock, after a premature celebration from Chi’s delegation, and the Clippers’ got a look. But Womack’s 3-pointer from the left corner bounced high off the back iron and out, setting off celebrations 37 years in the making.
“My last year and to do all this, first time in history most of the stuff, one of the best records we’ve ever had,” Sayed said. “Words can’t even describe what I’m feeling right now.”