Anthony Dabbundo (@AnthonyDabbundo)
Entering the Central League semifinals on a three game losing streak, with just a 9-7 league record, not many thought Strath Haven had a chance to upset top seed Conestoga.
With dominant big man John Harrar marauding in the paint, and the Panthers eager to settle a score from last season, Strath Haven took it to the title favorites.
Harrar dominated the interior for all 32 minutes, en route to 25 points and 17 rebounds in Strath Haven’s 62-54 win over the top seeded Pioneers.
“Those games got us ready for this, we were very prepared for this,” Panthers head coach Dave McFadden said. “We had something to prove, no one gives us anything, we don’t get any respect.”
Because of Strath Haven’s blowout loss to the Pioneers in last year semifinals, and a regular-season overtime loss earlier this season, the Panthers wanted revenge.
“Our history with them has been awful, in the same situation they beat us by 25 last year, and they beat us again in overtime this year,” Harrar said. “This one feels good.”
Perhaps now, as the Panthers are set to take on Lower Merion for the Central League title on Tuesday, Strath Haven will be given the respect its feels it deserves.
After three close losses to Marple Newtown, Radnor, and Harriton, the Panthers regrouped, and got ready to turn in their best 32 minutes of the season.
On Sunday, they did just about everything right.
“During practice this week we were only focused on us,” Harrar said. “We played our best today.”
Strath Haven’s best included a red hot start, shooting 7-of-11 in the first quarter to build a 15-10 lead after the first.
The Panthers took advantage of Conestoga’s slow shooting start, using a 9-0 early run to grab a lead that they never relinquished. With Harrar getting into a groove early with eight points and five rebounds in the opening quarter to propel his team, the Pioneers were in for a long night dealing with the best player on the court.
“I was waiting for this game for four years I took advantage of the moment,” Harrar said.
“He’s huge for us, and he makes me look good,” McFadden said.
In the second quarter and beyond, when the double teams came on Harrar, he was more than happy to kick it out to open shooters time and time again.
“I think our best basketball is when the double team comes and I kick it out and I know it’s going to go in,” the senior center said.
At the other end, Strath Haven put in a lockdown defensive performance, forcing the favored Pioneers into contested three after contested three, and limiting the interior presence of big man Angus Mayock.
When Conestoga cut the Panthers lead to just seven points midway through the fourth quarter, it was Chris Rosini who nailed a long three to extend the lead to 10, and the Panthers never looked back.
In crunch time, Strath Haven closed out the Pioneers, especially from the free throw line, where they shot 15-of-19 from the line.
Despite being a team that had struggled with turnovers in recent games, they took care of the ball, got out in transition, and earned easy points in the paint.
For Conestoga, it was an afternoon of missed opportunities. Coming off of two losses in the league championship each of the last two seasons, the door was wide open for the Pioneers to take advantage of a reeling Panthers team.
Yet, the Pioneers shot just 6-of-15 from the line, 4-of-15 from three, and allowed Strath Haven to shoot 5-of-8 from beyond the arc.
Despite 22 points from senior guard Scott Shapiro, Conestoga failed to generate offense for most of the afternoon, especially in the first half, when they shot just 7-of-21 as a team.
“You’ve got to hit free throws to win games, and we didn’t,” Conestoga head coach Mike Troy said. “I have to do a better job of getting our guys ready.”
Conestoga will now have an extended rest, as they earned a bye in the opening round of districts as the No. 7 seed. They will have nine days to prepare for the winner of Lower Merion and Central Bucks South.
While the Pioneers prepare for districts, Strath Haven has one more game to win to do what they failed to do the last two seasons.
Win the league title.
“Because we lost in the playoffs two years in a row, we get no respect,” McFadden said.
“But my kids don’t quit. And this program doesn’t quit.”