Tredyffrin >> Conestoga’s season ended abruptly Tuesday evening with a 52-45 loss to 18th seed North Penn in its District 1 6A boys basketball tournament opener.
“Tonight was incredibly disappointing – I’m just gutted for our seniors,” said Conestoga head coach Mike Troy. “I really wanted us to do well in Districts because these seniors have given a lot to the program.”
Those seniors include Andrew Fox, Jack Liedtka, Jordan Cuthbert, Hayden Wells, Michael Costigan, Jeremiah Miller and Austin Fontaine.
“This team was an absolute joy to coach this year,” said Troy. “It was a lot of fun to come to the gym this year, seeing all the hard work these guys put in. I wish I could have gotten them a little further. … The effort my kids gave tonight was absolutely terrific, and I couldn’t be prouder of them.”
The 2021 season was a challenging one for the Pioneers (7-3). Four games into the season, Conestoga had to shut it down for two weeks due to COVID, then the Pioneers came back to play six more games, including Tuesday’s District 1 contest.
“This was a year where our players made every good choice they could make in a COVID season,” said Troy. “We got shut down for two weeks because of another team – we played a team and the next day they called us to say that one of their kids had COVID. We had played four games up to that point, and were starting to hit our stride. We got knocked down, and I give our guys credit for coming back up and earning the No. 2 seed in Districts with all of that happening.”
Tuesday evening, Conestoga and North Penn battled back and forth in the first quarter, and the period ended with the visiting Knights up by one point, 12-11. Costigan’s trey just before the buzzer kept the score tight.
In the second quarter, North Penn’s defense kept the hosts at bay, holding the Pioneers to just eight points while moving to a 27-19 halftime lead. While Conestoga featured a couple of 6-foot-9 forwards in senior Andrew Fox and junior Michael Walz, the visiting Knights had a few big men of their own in 6-foot-6 senior forward Josh Jones (their leading scorer this season) and 6-foot-4 sophomore forward Ryan Zeltt.
“I thought we played really good team defense – we had good pressure on Conestoga to make post entry hard,” said North Penn head coach John Conrad. “Our three big guys – Josh Jones, [6-3 junior forward] Milind Pulugura off the bench, and Ryan Zeltt – worked like crazy and battled Conestoga’s big guys down at the post. I thought they did a really good job of battling inside.”
In its District 1 6A tourney opener, North Penn (12-6) knocked off No. 15 seed Strath Haven to advance to Tuesday’s game.
“Our kids are buying in, they’ve got good chemistry, it’s a good group of young men,” said Conrad. “We’ve got good team leadership, and good, high-character kids.”
While Jones and Zeltt combined for 21 points Tuesday, 6-2 senior guard Billy Coley, the Knights’ leader in treys this season, tallied 19 points against Conestoga, including a trio of treys.
“Billy really shot the ball well and played within himself tonight,” said Conrad.
In the third quarter Tuesday, a couple of Walz putbacks cut the visitors’ lead to 29-25. North Penn increased its lead to 37-29 late in the third quarter, but a dunk by Cuthbert just before the buzzer cut the Knights’ advantage to 37-31.
With 4:03 to play in the fourth quarter, Fontaine nailed a trey from the left side to cut North Penn’s lead to 41-40. It was the closest Conestoga got for the rest of the game.
One minute later, following a Conestoga turnover, Zeltt connected on a three-pointer from the top of the key to give North Penn a 44-40 lead. A Pioneer turnover was followed by a Conestoga foul on North Penn junior guard Joe Larkins, who hit both ends of a 1-and-1 to give the visitors a 46-40 lead with 1:36 left.
Fox scored underneath to cut North Penn’s lead to 46-42 with 1:21 left, then the Knights ate up some time with passes until sophomore guard Mario Sgro was fouled. He made both ends of a 1-and-1 to give the visitors a 48-42 lead with 55.5 seconds left.
Liedtka hit a trey from the top of the key to cut North Penn’s lead to 48-45 with 29.2 seconds left, then Larkins was fouled and made both ends of a 1-and-1 to give the visitors a 50-45 lead with 22.7 seconds left. North Penn was 9-for-10 from the charity stripe in the fourth quarter.
For Conestoga, Fontaine led the Pioneers’ attack with nine points, scoring five of them in the fourth quarter.
After the game, Troy praised the resilience of his Pioneer squad.
“We were a very resilient team this season,” said Troy. “We got a later start than other teams; we had a two-week break in the middle of the season. I’m proud of my kids – they made every right choice when it came to COVID; and as the saying goes, ‘Don’t judge me by how many times I fall down, judge me by how many times I get back up,’ and I think our team emulated that terrifically this year.
“My assistant coach Bryce Manning, who’s been here three years, he grew up with our [seniors]. They’re a quality group of seniors, a group of fine young men. I can’t wait to see what they achieve in the next chapters of life.”
North Penn 52, Conestoga 45
North Penn 12 15 10 15 – 52
Conestoga 11 8 12 14 – 45
North Penn (52): Sgro 0 2-2 2, Larkins 1 4-4 6, Coley 8 0-0 19, Pulugura 2 0-0 5, Jones 3 4-6 11, Zeltt 4 0-0 10, Totals 18 10-12 52.
Conestoga (45): Fontaine 4 0-0 9, Miller 2 0-0 5, Mackey 1 3-4 5, Liedtka 2 0-0 6, Costigan 1 0-0 3, Carew 0 0-0 0, Cuthbert 3 0-0 6, Fox 3 0-0 6, Walz 2 0-0 5, Todd 0 0-0 0, Totals 18 3-4 45.
Three-point field goals: NP – Coley 3, Pulugura, Jones, Zeltt. CON – Fontaine, Miller, Liedtka 2, Costigan, Walz.