Drew McKeon (above) and PJP II captured their second consecutive Frontier division crown on Saturday night. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Pope John Paul II’s gymnasium was a battle of student sections on Saturday night.
At one corner, decked in white, were the Golden Panthers’ faithful, taking up an entire section of bleachers behind their team’s bench, plus a rather sizeable cheerleading squad beside them. In the opposite corner, across from the Phoenixville bench, was an Phantoms cheering section of equal size, turning what was ostensibly a PJP home arena into a competitive atmosphere that featured plenty of spirit on both sides. The sections spent the whole evening trading chants, cheers, and boos, stopping only for a few brief minutes every once in a while.
Oh yeah, and there was a basketball game, too.
“It became very apparent, I think, in the third quarter, they were just going back and forth,” PJP senior Drew McKeon said of the crowd. “It was a great atmosphere, though, really does create a great basketball atmosphere.”
“We’ve been trying to get people to come to our games all year, and (it’s happening) progressively, because we’ve been winning, we’ve gotten more and more people, but this was the first game other than Methacton game where opposing fans came, and I think that just adds a little bit extra energy” second-year head coach Brendan Stanton said. “It was always destined to come down to one game, winner-takes-all, and I’m happy that it was here.”
The Golden Panthers and Phantoms’ cheering sections turned out in full force to watch the regular-season finale of the Pioneer Athletic Conference’s Frontier Division, which just happened to pit the only two one-loss teams in the division head-to-head. At stake was not only the division title, but the accompanying No. 2 seed in the PAC playoffs and bye into the league semifinals it provides, with the loser having to play Boyertown in the first round of the six-team conference tournament.
Plus, of course, all the bragging rights between the two PAC rivals.
And after suffering a setback loss to Upper Merion on Thursday night in a game that would have made Saturday evening’s contest much less meaningful had it gone otherwise, PJP wasn’t about to let another big opportunity slip through its grasp. Behind 20 points from McKeon and a 12-point, 13-rebound double from junior Justin Green, the Golden Panthers captured their second consecutive PAC Frontier title with a 63-51 win over the Phantoms.
“Feels great, feels real good...this was huge, because now we get the bye, the 2-seed going into the playoffs,” McKeon said. “We worked so hard for this, and it really gives us a lot of confidence going into the PAC playoffs.”
By improving to 17-4 (9-1 PAC) with one non-league game left to play, PJP locked up its best regular-season ever, dating back to the school’s opening in 2010. They went 16-6 in the regular season (18-8 overall) in the program’s first year, using players from the combined teams at the closing St. Pius X and Kennedy-Kenrick.
“I think they were even more excited about [the record] than after I said they won the division,” Stanton said. “We knew we won the division, but when I said that, they were extra fired up.”
Brendan Stanton (above) and the Golden Panthers are two wins away from setting a new program record. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
The win total is the four year in a row of win improvements for the Golden Panthers, who were 3-19 in 2016-17, 6-15 the following year, then went 11-11 last season. They equalled last season’s win total during a win streak that lasted from Dec. 27 to Jan. 28, and combined that with some positive early-season outcomes, like a 17-point comeback at Phoenixville way back on Dec. 17.
No such deficit occurred in the rematch, though the Phantoms used a 15-2 run in the second quarter to erase a 13-point deficit and force a 28-28 tie at the break. Phoenixville star senior guard Steve Hamilton (team-high 18 points) took advantage of an early third foul on Green to attack the rim, and junior guard Mike Memmo (14 points) hit a 3-pointer and three foul shots after taking contact another long-range attempt as part of the run.
The second-quarter slump has plagued PJP this season, so the Golden Panthers weren’t too panicked going into the locker rooms.
“We’ve had a lot of games this year we’ve gone into half tied, we’re a second-half team,” McKeon said. “We knew we had to pick it up defensively, especially after the 15-2 run, and we just rallied around each other and we got it done.”
McKeon went off in the third, knocking down three 3-pointers, and sophomore Kevin Green –– Justin’s younger brother –– hit one of his own, but the lead was only 46-43 after three quarters. It wasn’t until the final four minutes that the Golden Panthers really put it away, getting a clutch triple from Kevin Green (10 points/6 rebounds/4 assists) to extend the lead to eight with under three minutes left. Luke McCarthy (8 points) went 4-for-4 from the foul line in the fourth quarter.
“I think when we just move the ball, everything sort of pops,” Stanton said. “When the ball moves, we get more open shots, and when you make shots, you can set up your defense and everything’s easier. It’s sort of come in waves throughout the year, but I’ve just been impressed with the way we bounced back from any adversity.”
As the No. 2 seed in the PAC tournament, PJP gets to avoid having to play league and District 1 6A favorite Methacton until the championship game, barring a major upset on the other side of the bracket. After that, the No. 1 seed in the three-team District 1 4A tournament will await the winner of Lower Moreland and Springfield Twp. on Feb. 22, with the winner advancing to the state tournament.
The Golden Panthers made it to states in their first three seasons, but only won one game, in 2013. They’ve never won a district championship. It’ll only take one win to make that happen, but they’d like a few more along the way.
“We’ve just got to be us and bring in energy,” McKeon said.
PJP II: 17 | 11 | 18 | 17 | 63
Phoenixville: 9 | 19 | 15 | 8 | 51
PJP II: 22-49 FG, 7-18 3PT, 12-22 FT
Phoenixville: 18-47 FG, 6-16 3PT, 9-11 FT
PJP II: McKeon 20, J. Green 12, Workman 11, K. Green 10, McCarthy 8, Smreck 2
Phoenixville: Hamilton 18, Memmo 14, Weiah 10, Kopko 4, Breisblatt 3, Allain 2