KING OF PRUSSIA >> All the bells and whistles of Upper Merion’s new gym are certainly impressive. The state of the art facility just needed the memories to go with the glamour.
One was made Thursday.
Upper Merion’s boys basketball team hosted Pope John Paul II for its regular season finale with the Pioneer Athletic Conference Frontier title on the line. The Vikings went blow-for-blow through four quarters and pulled out a 48-41 win in the new Valhalla Gym.
“We didn’t think we were gonna have the greatest season. We barely had an offseason. Brand new gym, not much of an offseason,” Upper Merion sophomore Devon Nelson said. “We’re all proud. We’re happy that we got this far. It’s just a good feeling.”
FINAL — Upper Merion 48, Pope John Paul II 41
Upper Merion snaps PJP’s streak of four straight division titles.
In their first year in the new Valhalla Gym, the Vikings are your 2022-23 PAC Frontier champions. pic.twitter.com/Q291IHUT8D
— Evan Wheaton (@EvanWheaton) February 3, 2023
Upper Merion will assume the No. 2 seed behind Spring-Ford — top-ranked in District 1 Class 6A — and both receive first-round byes in the PAC tournament as division winners. The opening round of the six-team playoff field will kick off at Spring-Ford Wednesday, Feb. 8, with the semifinals on Friday, Feb. 10. The championship is set for 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 14.
In a low-scoring affair where the Vikings (11-10, 7-3) led just 18-16 at halftime, Nelson led the charge with 18 points and Colin Hirshorn added 10 for Upper Merion.
Neither team trailed by more than six points through the first three quarters until midway through the fourth when the Vikings began to pull away, leading by as many as eight points down the stretch.
“We knew they were gonna come out shooting, on fire and scoring,” Nelson said. “We knew we just had to keep our heads down, our heads on tight, keep playing defense and come down on our own and score to keep the lead and win.”
Trey Rogers was a sharpshooter for the Golden Panthers (10-10, 7-3), burying five 3-pointers and finishing with 17 points while constantly keeping Pope John Paul II in contention with his shot selection. Dom DeMito scored 12 points with five in the fourth quarter.
In the last meeting between the two, the Vikings and Golden Panthers had no problem trading buckets and flexing their scoring muscles. The PAC Frontier championship game dialed back into more of a defensive trudge in which possessions were longer and points were much harder to earn.
“I thought they played really great coming out to start. They had long possessions, they were disciplined and they made some shots early in the game,” Pope John Paul II coach Brendan Stanton said. “We didn’t make shots later in the game and I think that sort of got to us a little bit.
“We’ve been riding a four-game winning streak, so we came into it with a lot of confidence. It felt like our slow start offensively took the wind out of our sails a little bit.”
Upper Merion made the Golden Panthers pay at the line. The Vikings collectively shot 17-for-24 at the free-throw line with 15 of those points cashed in the fourth quarter. Pope John Paul II shot 4-for-4 at the free throw line.
The Golden Panthers had success early in the turnover battle, but as the game progressed those opportunities became more scarce and the routine shots weren’t falling.
“You’re never trying to give up easy buckets. Honestly, they missed a lot of easy shots too that I think were really deflating,” Upper Merion coach Jason Quenzer said. “If you’re a couple feet away from the rim and you miss a shot that you make all the time, it’s deflating. I think they had a few of those tonight. Credit to them for hanging around, they always hang around.”
Q4, 2:11 — Trey Rogers with a HUGE 3-pointer to bring the game within six.
Pope John Paul II cuts it 40-34. pic.twitter.com/fj8T1LiC1F
— Evan Wheaton (@EvanWheaton) February 3, 2023
Ranked No. 12 among District 1-5A schools — the last spot for the district bracket — Upper Merion can improve its position with a run in the PAC tournament. And surviving a team riding first place of the division in a dance between two stout defenses allowed the Vikings to start the conference playoffs on the right foot.
“You could definitely see both teams were feeling each other out. Every possession mattered,” Quenzer said. “They’re a really good squad, their firepower on the offensive side, you try to work your hardest to diminish it but for how long?
“When you go on pauses with one another, not really what you expected. But big moments for both teams in a big night. Obviously glad they weren’t able to get on any kind of run.”
The Golden Panthers had won the last four straight PAC Frontier titles, the last being given via a tiebreaker with Upper Merion based on power points. And while Pope John Paul II entered the game at the top of the Frontier standings, wins for Pottstown and Perkiomen Valley knocked the Golden Panthers from the PAC tournament.
Pope John Paul II now looks to Collegium Charter, Bishop Shanahan and Springfield Township in the District 1-4A playoff field.
“I told the guys, ‘We’re gonna have another game.’ For whatever reason, no matter how bad we play, somehow the basketball gods always give us one more opportunity,” Stanton said. “We’re gonna have at least one more opportunity to go out and see what we can do.”