Matt Chandik (@MChandik26)
RADNOR — South Sudan isn’t even six years old yet, but it’s been at war for more than half of that time.
Google the details if you must. It’s not pretty, and it became very obvious that Abraham Deng needed to be somewhere else. Anywhere, really, but not in South Sudan. It wasn’t a basketball decision. It was a decision to ensure his safety.
Crossing the Atlantic from Africa to North America was a huge adjustment for Deng, of course, but in hindsight, it might not have been the biggest one.
“The military thing,” Deng said with a smile.
Ah, yes, that minor detail.
VFMA’s strict regimen will catch just about anyone off-guard, and Deng was no different. Everything’s a little bit different when you’re 6-10, 210 pounds, too.
Fast forward a year and a few months since his arrival, and the Trojans’ South Sudanese import is turning into a star.
Thursday night, Deng gobbled up 17 rebounds and scored 14 points to lead VFMA to a 58-44 win over Holy Ghost Prep in the Bicentennial Athletic League semifinals.
The Trojans will take on Faith Christian, a 59-41 victor over Church Farm in the other semifinal, in Saturday’s championship game. Tipoff is set for 1 p.m. at Morrisville.
Deng’s biggest adjustments since coming over have been on the offensive end. It’s a little easier to be a defensive force when you’ve got the height and length that Deng does. His long arms often either deter players from taking shots or at least make them alter their strategy. Offensively, he’s had to expand his array of tricks to more than just one move, and it’s paying dividends for him and the Trojans.
“Everything is different. Back home, it’s not that taken that seriously. People just do it for fun. Here, it’s more than life,” Deng said. “I’ve been working on my shooting and ballhandling. When I came here, I didn’t know how to handle the ball because back home, they don’t treat the big men like guards. They just train you the first move and you can’t do anything else. What I’ve done here has helped my game.”
The Firebirds stormed out of the gates to an 8-0 lead and held a 25-18 lead at the half.
After seeing the Trojans twice in the regular season, Holy Ghost knew where to look for points. They often had a man in the middle of the 2-3 zone, just outside of Deng’s reach, and frequently attacked that spot for shots. It worked, too, as the Firebirds shot 8-for-18 from inside the arc in the opening half.
“…We realized that once we got it to the middle, (Deng) has to come out and that leaves a lot of low guys open,” said Holy Ghost’s Mike McFadden, who led all scorers with 24 points and also snared 11 rebounds. “In the second half, they pressed us a lot more and we just couldn’t get the ball to the middle as efficiently and that’s what hurt us.”
Slowly but surely, VFMA chipped away at the lead. The Trojans dumped the ball inside to Deng, especially when a banged-up Arion Lewis struggled to find his shooting stroke.
Myles Bunyon (above) helped Valley Forge during a huge second-half run. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
The inside-out game opened things up a bit, and the Trojans’ adjustments paid off in spades. Myles Bunyon (17 points) capped a 17-0 run with a layup to turn a 32-26 deficit into a 43-32 lead, and the Firebirds never recovered.
Deng, Bunyan and Lewis are usually the top guys for VFMA, but it’s plays like the ones the Trojans got from another transfer that could help them make a deep postseason run.
Rye Ahronson, a 6-4 sophomore from Kent, England, plays the role of glue guy that every successful team has. He had five points, three assists and a pair of rebounds, and he’s another player who’s seen his game take off in his first year as a Trojan.
“I played a bit in England, but I didn’t really take it seriously,” Ahronson said. “I preferred football, or should I say soccer, and when I came out here, I started playing basketball more and I enjoy it a lot more. I got over here at the end of September and I’m a family guy, so I miss my parents a lot, but they’ve visited me often.
"The basketball really helps because it kind of gets me out of the military stuff. It’s been pretty good.”
So good, actually, that it might bring a championship on Saturday.