Marquis Tomlin (above) scored 25 points as Penncrest raced past Upper Darby on Thursday night. (Photo Credit: Nate Heckenberger)
Nate Heckenberger (@nheckenberger)
MIDDLETOWN — Coming off a pair of Central League losses, Penncrest needed something to go right against Upper Darby, Thursday night.
But before the game even started, the Lions’ backs were pressed a little harder against the wall. Starting guard Saahir Lee was out sick, as well as head coach Mike Doyle, who was ill, during his fight against leukemia.
After playing five games in 10 days, and with only six games left on the schedule, sympathy wouldn’t put the ball in the basket.
Fortunately for the Lions, their guards were up to the task.
“We knew it was really important after losing two tough games,” Penncrest’s senior guard Marquis Tomlin said. “We knew we needed to come out with a lot more energy and we knew we had to hit shots.”
Tomlin and Aidan Carroll set the tone, scoring eight apiece, in the first quarter, both knocking down a pair of three-pointers.
With a double-digit lead much of the game, Penncrest rode the fast start to a 73-56 home win over Upper Darby, to retain its third-place slot in the Central League.
It was also the first career win for fill-in head coach Billy Cassidy.
“Over the summer, Coach Doyle brought me on the staff and talked about this situation happening, unfortunately, due to his health,” said Cassidy, who coached at Monsignor Bonner last year after playing at Neumann University and Friends Central before that. “We knew it might come about and he prepared me for six months. I felt confident. It’s not the best situation, with him going through a tough time, but it was good to battle and get the win for him.”
Though things did not go the way Penncrest hoped against Conestoga and Lower Merion last week, Cassidy believed it was a necessary growth process for a roster made up mostly of underclassmen.
Upper Darby had won five of six, so getting a little mojo back was perfectly timed.
“Getting into the heart of the schedule against the big 6A teams, I don’t think two losses in a row was a bad thing, necessarily,” Cassidy said. “It woke the kids up a little. It’s a long season and there are highs and lows. Good teams bounce back from tough losses, especially down a man and without your coach.”
Getting to the top is hard. Penncrest (13-3, 7-3 Central) knows that quite well after winning the District 1-5A titles in 2017 and 2018. Staying there isn’t any easier, something the Lions found out last season when they finished third.
Penncrest junior Denzel Atkinson-Boyer had 10 points in the win over Upper Darby. (Photo Credit: Nate Heckenberger)
Some faces have changed, but the expectations haven’t. Sitting at No. 2 in the 5A standings, Penncrest presses on with just four seniors on the roster.
“It’s about keeping the legacy going for everyone,” Tomlin said. “And it’s about helping the young guys keep it going after us.”
Tomlin has stepped into the leadership role, fluidly. He leads the team in scoring, and that will go up after his 25-point performance Thursday.
After hitting 16 threes the first 15 games, Tomlin drilled five against the Royals (5-5, 9-6), and went eight-for-11 from the field.
“He was great,” Penncrest’s junior big man Denzel Atkinson-Boyer said. “He brought the energy to the place and made shots.”
The Lions have made their hay this season playing methodical, tough basketball. Scoring just under 50 points per game, while surrendering just under 40, Penncrest shattered its season-high in points by a dozen Thursday.
Carroll (11 points), Atkinson-Boyer (10) and Denzel Quinn (10) joined Tomlin in double figures, all while holding Upper Darby’s leading scorer, Shareef Jones, to eight points on three-for-11 shooting.
“I know Coach Doyle wouldn’t be happy with how many points we gave up,” Cassidy said. “We like keeping games in the mid-40s, low-50s. Upper Darby is a tough team. They run and push it and hit threes, so we needed every basket we got.”
Ben Stanton started in place of fellow sophomore, Lee, and scored all eight of his points in the first half. Carroll, who leads the team in three-point shooting, pushed his season total to 35 makes.
“We’re coming together and playing really well,” Tomlin said. “The sophomores, this is their first time really out there and they’re doing really well.”
With six league games remaining, Penncrest holds a two-game edge over a group of teams with 5-5 league records. The top six in the Central League Standings qualify for the league tournament, and that’s where the Lions want to be, playing meaningful games in February.
If nothing else, Thursdays win showed a growing team what being part of a successful program looks like.
Adversity comes in many forms, from losing streaks or the unavailability of key figures. For the machine to keep running, the next man must step in.
“Coach Doyle has built something very special at Penncrest, using his relationships with the kids, on and off the court, and the community,” Cassidy said. “We know we’re going to get teams’ best shots. It’s important to keep pushing every day in practice.”
Penncrest will have four days to prepare for first-place Garnet Valley, Tuesday, before coming back home to host Marple Newtown, two days later.
Upper Darby 14 | 16 | 10 | 16 | 56
Penncrest 23 | 13 | 14 | 20 | 73
Upper Darby: 22-50 FG, 3-6 FT
Penncrest: 26-45 FG, 11-14 FT
Upper Darby: Kante 17, Joshuasville 10, Kash 10, Jones 8, Cavanaugh 6, Dabbs 5
Penncrest: Tomlin 25, Carroll 11, Atkinson-Boyer 10, Quinn 10, Potts 9, Stanton 8