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Shorthanded Churchmen let lead slip away against Ryan

NEWTOWN SQUARE >> With a grim countenance, Conner Delaney counted the errors that stood between Episcopal Academy and a win over Archbishop Ryan Tuesday.

Turnovers, missed free throws, rash shot selection — Delaney pointed to all as contributing to Ryan’s come-from-behind, 44-43 nonleague win.

But with respect to the astute point guard and Johns Hopkins commit, the difference was much simpler, though one Delaney resisted summoning: Where EA lacked its Division I talent, two-time All-Delco forward Nick Alikakos, Ryan enjoyed its team-carrying star in full flight, eventually.

Izaiah Brockington scored 11 of his 15 points in the final frame, orchestrating Ryan’s recovery from an 11-point deficit after three quarters. His jumper with 67 seconds left set the final margin, Ryan’s first lead since 4-2.

“I just felt that if I didn’t step up, we were going to have a tough time or we were going to lose,” Brockington said. “… We were down by double-digits, and I knew if I didn’t step up for my team, we would lose.”

Where Brockington elevated his game, Alikakos got no such opportunity, sidelined with a high ankle sprain with an indeterminate timeframe to return. Delaney’s play-it-as-it-lies mentality is as noble as it is necessary, but the fourth-quarter turnaround is most decipherable through the Alikakos lens.

Despite the absence of the United States Naval Academy commit, EA shot 15-for-30 on the day. The Churchmen’s 15 turnovers, including 10 in the second half, loomed large. But they kept Ryan in the 40s and limited Brockington to four points through three quarters. And EA missed only three of its 14 free throw attempts, two by Delaney in 10 trips to the charity stripe.

That’s a winning half of the boxscore on many days. But sans Alikakos, and against an unbeaten Ryan team, EA’s margins are that thin.

“We have to roll with the guys that are on the floor,” said Delaney, who scored a team-high 15 points. “We don’t know how long (Nick) is going to be out. … We have to play with the guys we have.”

EA (7-5) is 1-4 since Alikakos exited early in the Dec. 17 loss to Kent School at the Mercer Invitational at The Hill School, the losses by a combined 24 points. His prognosis is better than what was originally feared to be a leg fracture, but his absence ripples through the entire squad.

Case in point: Episcopal attempted four field goals in the fourth quarter, unable to get a look in two chances around a timeout on the final possession. Without Alikakos’s steady stream of offensive creation, for himself and others, the easy buckets dried up. Short of Delaney’s trips to the line, the Churchmen lacked a consistent pathway to points to fall back on.

“At the end of the day, we’ve got to finish that game and we came up a little short,” forward Kyle Virbitsky said. “But I was proud of the effort.”

Ryan, meanwhile, shook off its Christmas rust. Brockington, an NJIT commit, shot a ghastly 2-for-9 in the first three quarters. But he awakened in the fourth, his aggressiveness off the dribble igniting his team.

“When we went into the locker room at halftime, before coach came in, we had to calm each other down,” Brockington said. “Everyone was kind of anxious because when you’re 6-0, you have everything to lose. … We were trying to calm each other down, give each other encouragement, motivation and we were determined that we were going to play harder that next half.”

Matiss Kulackovskis, whose choice of shots left much to be desired early, hit a fourth-quarter triple and tipped in an Amin Bryant miss to get Ryan (7-0) within one. He finished with 13 points. Chris Palantino added a corner triple in the final frame as part of an eight-point effort.

The fourth-quarter slump belied EA’s stellar first-half balance. Delaney didn’t hit a basket in the game’s opening 16 minutes. But others emerged. Virbitsky shot 4-for-4 from the field for nine points, compensating for missing shooter Jack O’Connell. Matt Dade added eight of his 11 points in the first.

But after the break, those avenues dried up. Players like Virbitsky and Jermaine Rhoden, who shadowed Brockington on the defensive end, have seen their roles morph, from complementary offensive pieces to primary scoring options. They’ve succeeded in spells, though not consistently enough to notch wins.

So Delaney is taking the long view, of when those improvements and a potential Alikakos return mesh.

“It’s nice to see them step up and have good first halves, good games,” Delaney said. “It’s really going to help us when we start the league and teams are going to be scouting Nick and I, when he comes back, and other guys are going to have to put numbers on the board.”

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