EAST MARLBOROUGH – Don’t be fooled by the final score. The Unionville boys’ were tested Wednesday in round one of the District 1 5A Basketball Playoffs by No. 13 Upper Merion.
That’s not a bad thing, however. The Indians were challenged before pulling away late to win it, 54-39. But it was just the kind of workout fourth-seeded Unionville needed heading into a quarterfinal clash this weekend against Ches-Mont American rival West Chester Rustin.
“This is really a fun team to coach,” said Indians’ head coach Chris Cowles. “They are selfless — and not just the guys that are playing, but the entire team. That’s made the experience enjoyable for me.”
Unionville and Rustin split two regular season meetings, with the fifth-seeded Knights winning on the road by five in December and the Indians returning the favor by three in January. They wound up splitting the division crown, and will now break the tie on Saturday at Unionville.
“When the bracket came out we knew this was a possibility,” Cowles said.
In order to secure another shot at Rustin, Unionville (18-7 overall) turned to its defense, limiting a potentially potent Vikings’ attack to just 25 points in the final three quarters. Upper Merion’s season ends with an 11-12 mark.
“Offensively, we never found a groove, but credit to Unionville,” said Vikings’ head coach Jason Quenzer. “They were aggressive and tried to take away what we like to do. I wish we’d have played a little looser at that end.”
It wound up being a tough night for Indians’ standout Logan Shanahan, but he had plenty of help from his teammates, including Bryce Whitlock. The senior kick-started a third quarter mini-surge with three open-court buckets, including a momentum-building breakaway dunk.
“Whitlock is a good player,” Quenzer said. “We saw on film that he will leak out and get you on the break. There were a couple possessions where a four point difference goes to eight. Those little things matter and against an opponent this good you have to be locked in to everything.”
Clinging to a six-point lead midway through the fourth, the Indians closed it out at the free throw line, making 8 of 9 in the final 2:39. In all, Unionville scored 12 of the game’s final 15 points.
“Once we settled in and trusted each other, things started becoming easier for us,” Whitlock said.
“When we are connected, we play best,” Cowles added. “I don’t think that was at the level it can be, but it was good enough to get it done.”
Upper Merion went basket-for-basket with the Indians through most of the first half. But for the first time Unionville opened a little breathing room by ending the half on a 9-4 run to take a 26-22 lead into the break. Despite being whistled for two early fouls, senior guard Peter Kucharczuk sparked the surge with five points in a row.
“We just needed to focus at halftime because we weren’t playing how we wanted to play,” Whitlock said. “It all comes down to our core principles: being unselfish and playing as hard as we can.”
Shanahan scored 10 of his game-high 14 points in the final period. Whitlock chipped in 12, Jon Passarello had 11 and Kucharczuk added 10.
“We told our guys at the half that it really was about the defensive end in this game,” Cowles said.
“Every game is a challenge for us. That’s the way it’s been all season. It wasn’t the least bit surprising to us after watching (Upper Merion) on film. They have a lot of guys that can make shots, and their spacing is good.”
Nick Sheppard paced the Vikings with 13 points and Collin Bowman had 11.
“The difference was some little breakdowns,” Quenzer said.
“Unionville is a really good team and we knew we would have to come here and fight. But that’s what we’ve done all season. We’ve been in every game and clawed to the end.”
Unionville 54, Upper Merion 39
Upper Merion 14 8 10 7 — 39
Unionville 15 11 12 16 — 54
UPPER MERION – Jones 0 2-2 2; Kim 0 1-2 1; Tatom 4 0-0 8; Bowman 4 2-2 11; Lawson 2 0-0 4; Sheppard 6 0-0 13. Totals 16 5-6 39.
UNIONVILLE – P. Kucharczuk 3 2-2 10; Neylon 1 0-0 3; Shanahan 5 4-5 14; Nowoswiat 1 2-2 4; Passarello 4 3-4 11; Whitlock 6 0-0 12. Totals 20 11-13 54.
Three-point goals: Bowman, Sheppard, Kuckarczuk 2, Neylon.