T.J. Berger (above) went four-for-four in FSL championships as Westtown beat ANC. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
For as long as T.J. Berger and Noah Collier have been on the Westtown School’s varsity team –– that is to say, for all four seasons of their high school years –– they’ve been contributors to the Moose’s Friends’ League dominance.
From valuable reserves as underclassmen to starting stalwarts as juniors and seniors, Berger and Collier, along with several of their classmates, have been integral parts to Westtown’s last three Friends’ League championships, half of a string of six straight they’d amassed entering this season. They’d lost just one league game during that time.
All that stood in the way of a perfect run through the FSL playoffs was a Friday night date with Academy New Church at La Salle University’s Tom Gola Arena, the same Lions squad that had come within four points of ending the title streak a year ago.
Once again, ANC gave Westtown its best shot, but the Moose held strong, closing out a 69-66 win to stretch its win to seven in a row.
“This one was awesome,” said Collier, a 6-8 wing bound for Pitt next year. “We had to play with great seniors in the past, so we felt like it was finally our year to carry the weight, and we were able to do that, so it was awesome.”
Berger, one of two sons of head coach Seth Berger who play for the Moose, came up with several key plays down the stretch. With under 40 seconds to play, the 6-3 guard and outside shooting specialist found junior big man Franck Kepnang on a drive-and-dish for a 3-point play to put Westtown up four; less than 20 seconds later, he knocked down two foul shots to extend the lead to six.
“In a situation like that where we really needed a bucket, I figured I could take my man and beat him to the basket,” said the future Penn guard, who finished with 10 points and two assists in the win. “I saw the big man step (up) so I just dumped it off.”
Berger’s clutch plays came after ANC battled from down as many as 11 points in the third quarter to go up 60-58 with 2:30 to play, as senior guards Devin Bryant (20 points/5 assists/4 rebounds), Isaac Marshall (15 points) and Glenn Sabb (8 points/10 rebounds) all made big plays down the stretch.
Devin Bryant (above) had 20 points, including 11 in the fourth quarter to lead ANC's comeback bid. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Bryant in particular was on fire, hitting three fourth quarter 3-pointers, the last of which tied the game before Marshall’s bucket put them on top for the first and only time that evening.
“Every game against ANC is going to be a war,” Seth Berger said. “Kevin does such a great job as a coach, his kids play so hard –– and by the way, they’re really good. I know they’re the 8-seed in the [PAISAA] state tournament, they’re the best eight-seed we’ve ever seen.”
Even after Westtown went down, they never flinched, immediately tying it up on the other end and closing strong. The other Berger, sophomore Quin Berger, sealed the win with two foul shots with five seconds left, ANC adding a too-late layup ahead of the buzzer for the final margin.
“Me and Noah, we’ve been in this game four years in a row,” T.J. Berger said, “so I was telling everybody ‘we’re comfortable, we’re going to win this game.’”
ANC’s effort was an impressive one from a team that didn’t start anybody taller than the 6-4 Marshall, though 6-8 junior Elijah Muhammed chipped in four minutes and four offensive boards off the bench.
Meanwhile, Westtown starts two seven-footers in sophomore Dereck Lively (7 points/6 rebounds) and junior Franck Kepnang (11 points/5 rebounds), whose impact on the defensive end isn’t quite as obvious in the box score, though both will be playing at the highest level of basketball before long. That’s alongside Collier, 6-5 Jalen Warley and Berger, who’s taller than the rest of the ANC starting lineup.
“I know a lot of taller guys can understand, it’s hard to play against shorter players,” Collier said. “They’re faster than you, their feet are moving faster than you and they might be stronger than you sometimes, so they have a lot more physical advantages […] they were able to use that to their advantage tonight.”
Westtown balanced the Lions’ effort by shooting an efficient 50% from the floor (24-of-48), Warley leading the way with a 14-point, seven-assist effort. Coller, Kepnank and Lively combined to grab nine offensive rebounds, leading to a number of put-back dunks and free-throw opportunities, and their presence around the rim dissuaded enough ANC layups.
The only goal left for the Moose this season is to capture the Pennsylvania Independent School (PAISAA) championship, something they haven’t done since Berger and Collier were freshmen. They’re the top overall seed this year, and will play either Solebury or Penn Charter in the opening round on Fri., Feb. 14.
“These are my best friends, so it’s awesome to be able to play these last few games with them,” Collier said. “But I think the biggest focus right now is getting that ‘chip...there definitely is a time to think about letting it soak in, but we’ve got our eyes on one goal right now.”
ANC: 13 | 14 | 17 | 22 | 66
Westtown: 20 | 13 | 19 | 17 | 69
ANC: 25-53 FG, 9-17 3PT, 7-13 FT
Westtown: 24-48 FG, 8-19 3PT, 13-18 FT
ANC: Bryant 20, Marshall 15, McCall 8, Sabb 8, Dawkins 7, Allen 4, Muhammad 4
Westtown: Warley 14, Collier 13, Kepnang 11, T. Berger 10, Q. Berger 8, Lively 7, Little 6