BENSALEM >> Heart in terms of basketball can be defined and shown in several ways.
At one point down by 20 to PCL power Roman Catholic in Wednesday night’s PIAA 6A second round, Pennridge showed heart by fighting its way back into the game. Late in the game, with the Rams surging, Roman’s Jalen Duren showed heart by taking over on the defensive end.
Duren’s shot-blocking ability in the fourth quarter helped propel the Cahillites to a 62-51 win over the Rams on Tuesday, ending a terrific season for Pennridge and sending Roman to the state quarterfinals.
“I told the boys before the game, you can measure a lot of things, you can measure how high you jump, how tall you are, what you weigh, all those kind of things but you can’t measure what’s in here,” Dean Behrens said while tapping his chest. “I said that’s what we’re going to have and I thought the boys represented the school district, the community and our high school with class.”
Pennridge had no illusions heading into the game of what it was up against. With Duren, the highly-touted 6-10 forward in the middle and an array of talented guards around him, Roman presented a challenge the Rams hadn’t really seen this season.
Defensively, the Rams have played teams with top-notch big men before but it didn’t take long for senior Trent Fisher to realize things would be a bit different on Wednesday. Roman’s first play ended with Duren dunking off a lob pass and Roman sped out to an 11-2 start.
“In the beginning of the game, I was trying to help more middle but realized that wasn’t going to work because he caught a lob on the first play of the game,” Fisher said. “I knew I had to stay with him at all times and not lose him knowing he’s the most dominant player on the floor.”
Duren finished his night with 20 points, six rebounds, two assists and eight blocks. Three of those rejections came in the fourth quarter and while the Rams deserve credit for not backing away from going to the rim, Duren wanted to be challenged.
“That’s, not the main goal for me, but I know my size already intimidates people so me coming out and being aggressive, dunking hard, jumping hard and blocking shots, I do try to intimidate,” Duren said. “I know my length and my ability to get up. If my guards get beat, I have to be the help and either block or change shots at the rim.”
Pennridge got itself right back in the game with a trio of 3-pointers to close the first quarter and trailed just 15-11 after eight minutes. Behrens, who said he told his players not to be concerned if they did get blocked, felt that was a win for his group.
They weren’t able to keep that pace in the second quarter, with Roman pulling away a bit and taking a 30-18 lead into halftime. At the same time, Pennridge didn’t feel it was out of the game even if it faced a literal and figurative tall task.
“It’s a different experience playing against guys who could probably be in the NBA one day and we’ll watch play D-I basketball but we didn’t let that get to our heads,” Pennridge senior Christian Guldin said. “We wanted to play hard to the very end. We were down 20 at one point and the coaches told us to calm down and we would get our shots.”
Guldin, who is off to DeSales next year, scored seven in his final game and was a major focus of Roman’s defense. The Cahillites tasked senior Nasir Lett to cover Guldin, which the 5-foot-9 guard did well while also putting together a solid 11-point outing on offense.
Lett’s shooting was needed against the Rams’ zone and his impact didn’t surprise Roman coach Matt Griffin.
“I thought he did a really nice job and anything I ever ask of him, he does it to the best of his ability,” Griffin said. “It’s what I love about Nas. If anybody ever asks what kind of kid he is, I say he’s ‘aces,’ he’s just the best kid you’ll ever meet.”
Roman ended the second quarter on a 7-0 run and started the third with seven straight as a Duren-assisted three by Justice Williams put the Cahillites ahead 38-18 with 5:43 left in the quarter. A free throw by Colin Post snapped a seven-minute scoreless spell for Pennridge and started the Rams on their way back into the game.
They leaned on Fisher to do it and the newly-minted Wilkes signee was up for it. Fisher scored 19 points in his last high school game, showing all of his game with outside shots, an ability to get to the line and a couple nice passes for assists.
In the same round last year in the same gym, the Rams knocked off Abington on their way to a state final appearance. As the Rams cut the lead to 11 at the end of the third, they knew they were still in the game.
“We’re comfortable in this gym, we’ve been here multiple times and we knew if we came to play defense and hit some shots, we had a chance to hang with some tough competition tonight and making it a close one,” Fisher said. “For the seniors, the five of us, we knew if we lost that it was our last game so we wanted to play our hearts out and try to keep the season going along.”
Luke Yoder’s and-one cut the lead to eight with 4:54 left and a three by senior Paul Croyle canned a 3-pointer with 2:16 on the clock that shaved the lead to 58-51.
“We’re probably not the most talented team in the tournament but we’re going to come in and play the hardest,” Guldin said. “It that just showed tonight, playing a team that’s probably going to win a state championship and only going down by 11 points, it means a lot to us.”
After Croyle’s three, the Rams didn’t score again. Duren blocked three of their final four shot attempts.
“He’s an elite defender and he needs to continue to do more of that,” Griffin said. “It’s tricky for him sometimes when he tries to block a shot because he’s playing two guys at the same time. If he leaves, somebody has to take his man, today, he committed to that help and it worked out in our favor.”
“Guys were scoring because they’d see me coming and dump it off,” Duren said. “The help side guy has to drop down, but we’ve gotten a lot better with that.”
Roman is scheduled to play Methacton in Saturday’s quarterfinal round. The teams met in December at Archbishop Wood’s showcase with Roman picking up a 59-52 victory in an outstanding contest.
Pennridge ends its season but only after accruing an impressive resume. The Rams, who despite having five seniors really only had two players with varsity experience, came together and won an SOL Continental title, SOL tournament title and a state playoff game.
“We’ve been in the same program since 10 or 11U so putting this mark on the program is huge,” Fisher said. “We’re putting something on the banner to represent our year. A lot of people had doubts on us and we proved everyone wrong.”
With concerns over the coronavirus swirling all day Wednesday, Behrens was just glad he got one last opportunity to coach his team. To no one’s surprise, they went out showing a lot of heart.
“I was happy we got an opportunity to play one last time,” Behrens said. “I’m not sure how much longer they’re going to let teams play. At least we can say we got to play our last game as a group and it didn’t get taken from us because of the situation we’re in as a society right now. It was nice getting a chance to coach them one last time.”
ROMAN CATHOLIC 62, PENNRIDGE 51
ROMAN CATHOLIC 15 15 17 15 – 62
PENNRIDGE 11 7 18 15 – 51
RC: Nasir Lett 4 0-0 11, Xzayvier Brown 3 2-2 9, Justice Williams 6 2-3 16, Jalen Duren 9 2-2 20, Will Norman 1 0-0 2, Christian Kirkland 1 0-0 2, Kyle Maska 1 0-0 2. Totals: 25 6-7 62.
P: Connor Pleibel 1 0-0 3, Luke Yoder 3 1-1 7, Christian Guldin 3 0-0 7, Colin Post 4 1-2 9, Trent Fisher 6 4-4 19, Paul Croyle 2 0-0 6. Totals: 19 6-7 51.
3-pointers; RC – Lett 3, Williams 2, Brown; P – Fisher 3, Croyle 2, Guldin, Pleibel,