BETHLEHEM — A fair amount has changed from year two to year three in the life of Chester Charter Scholars Academy’s boys basketball programs. Among the highlights: The school’s name and the team’s coach.
But the most visible change for the Sabers, to augment the across-the-board improvement of a young squad, wore No. 1 Tuesday night. And it’s a prime reason why their first state tournament journey will last until at least the quarterfinals.
The Sabers spanked Notre Dame-East Stroudsburg, 72-55, in the PIAA Class A tournament’s Round of 16 at Bethlehem Liberty High, following the lead of junior point guard Malik Cook-Stephens.
He scored 12 points, part of a balanced offensive output. But he dished a team-high five assists, orchestrating a devastating offense that put the Sabers up 13 points after one quarter on the way to a runaway victory.
“Malik is a great point guard,” forward Damir Baez said. “He can see everything. He can see the whole floor without even looking at you. I love Malik as a point guard. … I just know he’s going to come to me, so I’ve got to be ready and finish.”
All five of his assists came in the first 2.5 quarters, helping CCSA run out to a 41-23 lead and a quarterfinal date with Southern Fulton, the third place team from District 5 that topped St. John Neumann, 59-57, Tuesday. That game is Friday at a neutral site.
Cook-Stephens distributed every which way, either via his stretch passes that slower-footed Notre Dame had no answer for in the open court or his length at 6-2 over defenders.
But the key to unlocking Notre Dame lay in the halfcourt. The textbook approach to Chester Charter (20-5) was to zone the Sabers and dare them to shoot. But Cook-Stephens got by stationary defenders at will to get to the basket. And when the path to the rim wasn’t there, he had shooters that he could find over, around and through the Spartans’ spartan defenses.
“Coach said attack the gaps,” Cook-Stephens said. “That’s what we had to do. We had to attack the gaps and look for the open man.”
The result was a devastating first quarter that stunned Notre Dame (13-14). Davon Stovall hit two 3-pointers in the first quarter and another two in the second. Davon White added a corner triple in the first. And top to bottom, Chester Charter just dominated.
But the lasting effect went behind Cook-Stephens, since Chester Charter is a rare Class A team that can roll nine or 10 players deep. Against Notre Dame’s six-man rotation, you could see the slump in the shoulders when coach Dan Spangler subbed in platoons in the second half. And in terms of the speed and attacking mentality, there was little drop-off. Especially when Chester Charter turned up a press that yielded 16 turnovers, the Spartans were sucking wind.
“Coach’s big thing is on defense,” Cook-Stephens said. “He said we’ve got to come out there and take it to them. He told us that they didn’t have that many ball-handlers, so we figured when we put the press on them, it would be easy and we could put on the pressure all game.”
Baez led the way with 13 points and nine rebounds. Cook-Stephens and Stovall scored 12 points each, Stovall providing a team-high three steals. Saleem Butler had 10 points on 5-for-6 shooting, White added eight points and Tyler Howard had just five points but contributed seven rebounds and six blocks.
The Sabers were 8-for-13 from 3-point range against a Notre Dame side the stubbornly clung to the tactic, and everyone who attempted a 3-pointer hit one.
Notre Dame, the District 11 runner-up, battled thanks to 21 points from Aaron Bailey. Trevor Hardy also had a stellar all-around game with nine points, eight assists (on an even half of their 16 baskets) and eight rebounds. The Spartans trimmed the lead within 41-28 in the third quarter via a Chase Medina 3-pointer.
But Butler answered with a basket to spur an 11-1 spurt that put the game out of reach at 54-29, sending Chester Charter on to another round.
“I just think everybody is ready to play,” Baez said. “If we come out and play our game, we’ll be good.”