Nelson, fellow Haverford School seniors come back to clinch a title

MALVERN — Christian Ray paused for a moment before identifying the play that made him believe.

Down nine points with a chance to go down 11, Ray’s Haverford School senior classmate Jameer Nelson Jr. stood his ground on the edge of the lane while Malvern Prep’s Rahdir Hicks jumped up and through him for an offensive foul.

“That’s when I knew, ‘come on, we’ve got this,’” Ray said.

Haverford School’s Asim Richards goes high to pull down a rebound against Malvern Prep Tuesday. (Pete Bannan/Digital First Media)

Malvern eventually would stretch that lead to 11 in the fourth quarter. But Nelson’s toughness in that moment had its effect, the first of many veteran plays from the Fords Tuesday afternoon.

They included a pair of 3-pointers from Gavin Burke, who had been shut out for three quarters. And a dish from Asim Richards from the right block to Nelson on the left wing for an open 3-pointer. And enough poise down the stretch to slow the game, string together stops and make sure that a shoddy performance at the free-throw line didn’t affect a suffocating defensive performance.

“Going through three of four years of high school varsity basketball kind of gives you the experience that you need for a game like that,” Burke said after the Fords sealed a 69-68 win. “It was really tight at the end. Christian, Jameer and Asim played amazing today.”

The victory completes a second straight outright, unbeaten Inter-Ac League title for the Fords (23-0, 10-0), who have won 21 straight league games. They’re the first team to collect consecutive titles in that manner since Episcopal Academy in 2005 and ’06. The Fords had already earned a share of the crown, but finishing with a win over Malvern (17-7, 7-2), which took the Fords to overtime in their last meeting, to deny the Friars a chance at a share of their first title since 2012 via a win in their finale next week was extra special.

The key was a 16-1 run in the fourth quarter spurred by Nelson’s charge. With Malvern up 62-52, Burke hit a 3-pointer from a Nelson assist. Richards blocked Hicks, then Jameel Brown was fouled in transition to get to the line. He missed the first, but he and Ray hopped to get three rebounds, Brown finally cashing in.

Ray’s second-chance bucket (though he missed the free throw) on the next trip cut the deficit to 62-60.

“I feel like it had to start on defense because we weren’t getting that much on offense,” Nelson said. “We had to stop them first to get ourselves going and turn defense into offense and get quality shots.”

PHOTO GALLERY: Haverford School vs. Malvern Prep

Burke banked home another three, this one set up by Ray passing out of the block, to even the game at 63 with 3:17 left. Brown tacked on two more by corralling a missed shot by Deuce Turner and charging to the hoop, then the coup de grace, Nelson’s 3-pointer from the corner in front of the Haverford bench after the astute pass from Richards with 1:58 to play.

“First, Christian was on the block and he didn’t see me,” Nelson said. “And then Asim saw me. He saw me, and then he turned, got the defense slipping and threw it to me. And it was just, I knew it was going in as soon as I threw it up.”

“Us four, we’re very, very, very close,” Ray said of the Fords seniors. “We have a lot of trust in one another. I gave the ball to Asim and I cut, and coach (Bernie) Rogers always tells us, ‘throw it behind.’ He threw behind and Jameer shot with confidence. The kid was in his face and I trusted it from the beginning.”

Ray led all scorers with 23 points, 14 rebounds and five assists. Nelson tossed in 15 points, and Brown paired 14 pts with nine boards.

Malvern Prep’s Deuce Turner shoots in the third quarter as Haverford School’s Asim Richards defends. (Pete Bannan/Digital First Media)

“Christian Ray is a great basketball player,” Malvern Prep coach John Harmatuk said. “And he got every loose ball, he got every rebound down the stretch, and he made big plays. It seems like every single time we play them, we’re right in it and Christian Ray closes those games out. He’s a helluva player.”

There was still a matter of shutting down the methods Malvern used to put the Fords’ unbeaten season on the ropes. They held a 32-19 edge in the third quarter via their backcourt, which Harmatuk regards as one of the best in the area.

Turner led the way with 21 points, including three third-quarter 3-pointers. Hicks took the ball off the dribble at will in the third with 10 of his 15 points. But Turner hit just one bucket in the fourth and Hicks was shut out, the pair combining for 15-for-35 from the field and just 3-for-11 from 3-point range.

Fran Oschell added 19 points on 7-for-10 shooting and three blocks. Turner added eight boards.

“They draw traffic and I thought they did a great job of finding Franny Oschell, who did a great job tonight,” Harmatuk said. “Everything we do is centered on our guards driving, drawing two defenders and either finishing or finding somebody open.”

Turner answered Nelson’s 3-pointer in kind, and a free throw got Malvern within 68-66. That’s when the Fords’ resolve wavered, Burke missing the front end of a one-and-one, Brown hitting one free throw, and Tyler Seward and Ray each clanging a pair. The Fords were 7-for-20 from the line — uncharacteristic for a team shooting 67.4 percent on the season — and 2-for-10 in the fourth.

The misses gave Malvern a chance to get even. Tygee Leach hit one of two with 30.6 seconds left to get within two, then Oschell missed the second free throw with 2.6 remaining that would’ve tied the game.

The rebound found Ray, and though he missed both at the stripe, Turner’s desperation heave was nowhere near close to stopping the Fords’ repeat.

It’s particularly sweet for Nelson, who missed most of last year’s league slate with a hip injury.

“To be a part of it, it’s a lot different,” he said. “It didn’t even hit me until we got in here that we won. But it was really special. …It’s definitely a great milestone for our team and our school and everything.”

“It means a lot, and it means a lot to me personally just because of everything that the community has done for me, and I’m very grateful,” Ray said. “But we’re not content. The Inter-Ac championship was always on our board, 10-0 was always on our board, but we want to win a (PAISAA) state final. So we’re going to keep going and now we need to win a state championship.”

Episcopal Academy 61, Germantown Academy 51 >> Matt Dade scored 25 points, and Alex Capitano returned after seven games out to hit four 3-pointers and tally 18 points as the Churchmen (11-13, 4-6) finished the league slate on a positive note.

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