LOWER MERION — There are times when Brett Foster can be deferential, when he can be the distributor, when he can leave games in his teammates’ capable hands.
And there are times when Foster knows he needs to call his own number, exert his considerable control over games and will his Ridley team to wins. Monday night’s spectacle fell into the latter category.
Foster scored a game-high 23 points, including 16 in the second half and nine in the fourth quarter in leading the Green Raiders to a 70-64 win over Conestoga in the Central League championship game at Harriton High School.
It’s the first loss that the Pioneers, the top seed in the District One Class AAAA tournament that kicks off Friday, have suffered at the hands of league opposition this season. They bested Ridley, the No. 9 seed in District One and No. 3 entering this tournament, in their previous two meetings and went 16-0 through the regular season.
Monday was different, though, thanks to the string-pulling of Foster, who did most of the vital work in cementing the Green Raiders’ first Central League title since 2008.
He set the tone in the second quarter, as Ridley cultivated a one-point lead on the back of five 3-pointers, two from Foster. His daring drives to the rack — always under control, but out of Conestoga’s control — fostered a lead that grew as large as 12 in the second half.
And when Conestoga delivered its best punches to get back in the fight, there was Foster, shaking off whatever defender deigned to stay in front of him, feathering in a layup here or earning a hard-won trip to the line there.
“I just take what the defense gives me,’ Foster said. “I had a lane, so I just had to be aggressive and do what my team needed.’
What Ridley needed to do was adjust to the different looks Conestoga (20-3) provided. When the Pioneers went to a 2-3 zone defense, Ridley hit its 3s — including three each from Foster and Julian Wing and a total of 9-for-15 shooting from deep, 5-for-7 in a torrid second quarter. When Conestoga discovered its edge in the post with big man Daniel Vila, who had 10 points at half of 5-for-5 shooting, the Green Raiders (19-5) moved the stronger yet undersized Ameer Staggs to front him, contest his shots and hold him to just one field goal after half.
For Foster, the adjustment came when Conestoga shifted the lanky Martin Dorsey in an attempt to slow down Ridley’s point guard. That didn’t work, either, Foster drawing three trips to the line in the fourth quarter, quieting the pace and volume of Conestoga’s comeback and making sure Dorsey was sitting with five fouls by the final whistle.
“After I made my first step, just keep going by him and attacking the rim,’ Foster said. “I knew I could beat him. He kind of pressed up on me, so I just went around him and kicked out when I had to, or went to the rim when I had to.’
For a second straight game, joining Ridley’s upset of No. 2 Lower Merion Saturday, 55-41, the Green Raiders had a fourth-quarter lead to hold on. This one was in greater jeopardy, Conestoga getting as close as two points at 66-64 when Andrew Diehl (13 points, just 4-for-16 from the field) banked home a second-chance 3-pointer from about 35 feet with 12.4 seconds left.
But Ridley held on to the lead at the line, hitting 13 of 17 attempts at the charity stripe in the fourth quarter, including six ice-water-in-your-veins makes in six attempts by Ryan Bollinger that even Foster had to admit was the reason the Green Raiders prevailed.
“We come in every day at practice, we shoot free throws for 10, 20 minutes,’ said Bollinger, who hit a pair of 3s and finished with 14 points. “On the line, I just had to fight the crowd out and I had to make them.’
“We’re a good foul-shooting team,’ Ridley coach Mike Snyder said. “There’s been some games where we’ve struggled, but for the most part, we’ve been pretty strong. I’m not afraid of any of them stepping in to shoot the shots.’
The game seemed as though it might avoid a drama-filled conclusion when the Green Raiders, up nine after three quarters, started the final frame with a jumper from Nick Czechowicz and a three in transition from Bollinger that put them up 51-39 with 6:23 to play.
But Conestoga had a run left in it, rattling off a 12-3 spurt that featured five points from Darryl Caldwell (18 points).
That burst of momentum was counteracted by a pair of Foster drives to the hoop to keep the lead at five. Bollinger hit a pair at the line, and after a missed front end of a one-and-one by the usually reliable Wing (13 points), Foster hit four of four attempts from the line on consecutive trips down the floor. From there, Bollinger took over, grabbing a couple of key boards and having the presence of mind to hang on, then convert from the stripe to send the boisterous Ridley traveling support group into frenzies of joy.
“I can’t even explain it,’ Bollinger said. “I don’t think anyone expected us to win. We came out here, we got the lead, and we didn’t give it up. We just fought the whole time.’