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Spring-Ford, Reading set for PIAA 6A boys basketball semifinal

Spring-Ford point guard Jacob Nguyen (3) works his way around West Chester Henderson forward Danny Surowiec (22) during the District 1-6A boys basketball tournament's second round at Spring-Ford High School on Feb. 21. (Evan Wheaton - MediaNews Group)

Polar opposites will collide on Tuesday when Reading High faces Spring-Ford in a PIAA Class 6A boys basketball semifinal at 7 p.m. at Coatesville High School.

The Berks and District 3 champion Red Knights (30-1) have not lost against a team from Pennsylvania and comfortably defeated New Castle 72-48 in the quarterfinals on Saturday. Meanwhile, the District 1 runner-up Rams (28-3) defeated State College 45-39 in their quarterfinal.

Reading High is making its third appearance in the semifinals in the last seven seasons — the Red Knights won titles in 2017 and 2021 — while Spring-Ford is in the semis for the first time.

Wilson coach Matt Coldren has a unique perspective, having played Spring-Ford once (losing 42-40 in January) and Reading High three times (dropping all three) this season.

“It’s an intriguing matchup because it’s two different styles,” Coldren said. “Reading is super athletic and pressures you into making mistakes and so forth. And I think Spring-Ford’s strengths are the exact opposite.

“I think they’re really well-coached and in my opinion run some of the best sets that I’ve seen all year. Their coach (Joe Dempsey) is a really good X’s and O’s kind of guy. So it’s almost like a contrast in styles.”

Indeed, the season totals support the contrast.

Reading High, always on the attack at both ends of the floor, averages 70.7 points per game while only giving up 49.5. Spring-Ford, showing that defense is its strength, allows just 45.2 points per game, while scoring 57.1.

The Red Knights are fueled by relentless defensive pressure and an offense that is led by three All-Berks seniors who are capable of scoring in numerous ways.

Two-time Berks Player of the Year Ruben Rodriguez is closing in on 2,000 career points — he has 1,980 — after scoring a game-high 27 against New Castle. He is supported by fellow All-Berks seniors Aris Rodriguez, who averages 13.9 points per game, and Myles Grey, who averages 13.6.

“I don’t think it’s going to be advantageous for Spring-Ford to run with Reading,” Coldren said. “Reading is going to want the game to be a little bit helter skelter because they (the Rams) do run really good sets. And I think if Reading allows them to do that, they can make a game of it.”

Spring-Ford’s exceptional sets are the product of their legendary coach, Dempsey. In his 14-year career at La Salle College High School, Dempsey’s teams made the PIAA Tournament four times and reached the 2014 final in Class 4A. He was named the Philadelphia Catholic League Coach of the Year in 2010.

Dempsey, in his second season with Spring-Ford, has guided the Rams to their first PAC championship since 2015-16, as well as the No. 1 seed in this year’s District 1 Tournament.

Jacob Nguyen, a 6-4 sophomore guard, and EJ Campbell, a 6-1 junior guard, drive the offense. Nguyen averages 16.5 points per game and is strong beyond the arc, having made 76 3-pointers. Campbell averages 13.1 points per game.

Zach Zollers, Alex Lewis and Tommy Kelly are forwards who see substantial minutes for the Rams. Kelly, at 6-4, adds size while also averaging 7.7 points per game.

“Personnel-wise they have a really good young shooter in Nguyen,” Coldren said. “He’s only a sophomore but he’s going to be a really good player.

“I would say Spring-Ford has overall nice size like Nguyen, he’s about 6-3 or 6-4, and they have another kid (Kelly) who is about 6-4 or 6-5, but very thin. So although they have size across the board, they’re not overly big. They’re big kid is very similar to Aris Rodriguez.”

According to Coldren, the game could come down to turnovers.

Against New Castle, Reading High forced seven turnovers in the first quarter to jump to a 19-10 lead and were up 33-20 at the half. As they have proved all season, if the Red Knights’ fast-paced offense can take an early lead, that usually means trouble for the opposition.

Amier Burdine, another senior, leads the Reading High defense and is supported by the outstanding rebounding abilities of Yadiel Cruz, a junior who comes off the bench. Cruz had 11 rebounds in the second-round win over Upper Darby.

Malik Osumanu, a 6-6 junior who scored a career-high 10 points in the quarterfinals, and 6-5 senior Jedaya Ortega each add height at center for the Red Knights.

Ruben Rodriguez, Grey and Burdine all were contributors on Reading High’s state championship team two years ago.

“I think if Reading can turn them over, I think it could be, I don’t want to say a rout, but I think Reading could win handily if they can force them to play up-tempo and so forth,” Coldren said. “I think Reading is one the best teams around in transition; turning turnovers into easy buckets I think that’s what Spring-Ford needs to avoid.”

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