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District 1 Playoffs: 5A & 6A Semifinal Preview (Feb. 25-26)

02/24/2020, 1:45pm EST
By Josh Verlin

Pat Fleury (above) and Cheltenham are one of four teams left in the District 1 6A championship hunt. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

CoBL Staff (@hooplove215)

The District 1 Class A, 2A and 4A playoffs have wrapped up their small brackets, as Chester Charter, Dock Mennonite and Pope John Paul II all captured titles this past Saturday. 

Now it’s time for the big schools to settle their scores.

The district’s two largest classifications, 5A and 6A, are both down to their final four programs in the chase for a title, two new programs going to hoist a trophy with both defending champions out of the running. 

Below are previews of the District 1 5A and 6A semifinals, which take place this week, as well as a list of the other seeding and play-back games in those brackets. All teams in the semifinals and seeding games are also qualified for the PIAA state tournaments; those in play-back contests are playing elimination games, with the winners in both 5A and 6A playback games earning their own spot in the state brackets.

The championships for both 5A and 6A will take place Saturday, Feb. 29 at Temple University’s Liacouras Center; the 5A championship is at 3 PM and the 6A championship at 7 PM.

District 1 6A Semifinals
Tues., Feb. 25, Liacouras Center, Temple University

3) Cheltenham vs. 7) Bensalem (6:00 PM)
Two Suburban One League division champions meet in the opener of the 6A semifinals, as SOL-American victor Cheltenham (23-3) takes on National champ Bensalem (19-6). Cheltenham, which has been one of the district favorites since the offseason and played like it all year –– despite the opening-game, season-ending knee injury suffered by senior point guard Zahree Harrison –– beat No. 19 Upper Darby 83-57 in the second round and then dispatched Coatesville 68-61 in the quarterfinals, making the semifinals a year after losing in the second round and missing out on the state playoffs entirely. They’ve won 11 of their last 12 overall, the only defeat coming to Pennridge in the SOL tournament championship. Without Harrison, the scoring load has fallen on 6-4 senior wing Jaelen McGlone, bound for Rider next year, and sophomore guard Justin Moore has become a D-I prospect in his own right. Another senior forward, lanky 6-4 Sean Emfinger, is another interior scoring option who can play above the rim.

The Owls will counter with their own one-two punch of senior wing Jeremiah Alexander and junior guard James Ashford IV, though sophomore Aaron Sanders has a promising upside as well. Under the direction of first-year head coach Ron Morris, a Bensalem alum and teacher who was an assistant under previous coach Mike McCabe, the Owls won their division and became only the fifth team in school history to qualify for states. They got past Spring-Ford 48-45 in the second round and, thanks to an upset by Downingtown East over Garnet Valley, got to host a quarterfinal game as well, topping the Cougars 51-43. Bensalem hasn’t played many teams of Cheltenham’s caliber, however, losing to Coatesville by 27 early in the season; this game will be a real test of how much they’ve improved since then.

Jeff Derstine (above) and Methacton are in the District semifinals for the first time in school history. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

1) Methacton vs. 4) Chester (7:30 PM)
When it comes to district tournament experience, these two programs are just about polar opposites. For decades, Chester has been a regular presence this deep in districts, winning more than its fair share, even though the Clippers (21-3) haven’t done so since the 2014 AAAA district tournament, before the state went from four to six classifications. Methacton, meanwhile, has never been this deep in the district tournament, but that doesn’t mean this group of Warriors (24-2) are in over their heads. Just the opposite, in fact: after winning their third consecutive Pioneer Athletic Conference title, routinely beating their conference foes by 20-30 points or more, Methacton had no problems in its first two district games, beating No. 16 Council Rock South 66-41 and then No. 8 Pennridge 69-46. Chester didn’t have many problems in beating No. 13 Haverford 64-44 in its second-round game, but had to fight off No. 5 Lower Merion 54-46 in the quarterfinals.

Both teams have the ability to initiate offense through a number of different options, including guards and forwards. Methacton’s biggest advantage in this one will be 6-10, Colgate-bound senior center Jeff Woodward, who often runs the offense from the high post or even the perimeter, using excellent passing abilities to find sharpshooting guards Brett Eberly, Owen Kropp and Erik Timko –– all seniors –– and sophomores Brett Byrne. Timko, a 6-3 wing guard, just passed the 1,000-point mark, and can score from all three levels. Chester’s frontcourt isn’t as tall as Woodward, but senior Zahmir Carroll and junior Karell Watkins are both athletic 6-4 wing/forwards, and there are 10 juniors and seniors on the roster. Head coach Keith Taylor’s nephew, senior guard Akeem Taylor, is also closing in on 1000 points and could get there with a strong outing against Methacton.

Playback Games (@ higher seeds)
12) Central Bucks East vs. 24) North Penn
2) Garnet Valley vs. 19) Upper Darby

Seeding Games (@ higher seeds)
5) Lower Merion vs. 8) Pennridge
6) Coatesville vs. 18) Downingtown East


District 1 5A Semifinals
Weds., Feb. 26, Norristown High School

3) Penncrest vs. 7) Penn Wood (6:00 PM)
For the fourth time in the four years there’s been a 5A classification, Penncrest is back in the district semifinals. The Lions (21-6) won it each of the first two iterations behind current Wilmington U guard Tyler Norwood, and lost to top seed West Chester East in last year’s semifinals as the No. 4 seed. As usual, Mike Doyle’s program takes itself most seriously on the defensive end, holding most of its opponents under 40 points, including a 57-23 win over Chichester in the opening round of districts and a 43-34 win over Strath Haven in the second round. They enter this one having won eight of their last 10, losing to Haven in the regular season and Haverford High in the Central League championship game.

Penn Wood (15-7), meanwhile, comes in on a seven-game win streak in which they’ve scored more than 57 points in all but one contest, and they’ve scored more than 60 points in 11 games this year. Senior guard Shamir Baynes dropped 21 points in the Patriots’ quarterfinal win over Holy Ghost Prep, and junior forward Jerry Flynn added 15, leading four scorers in double figures. Penncrest will have to find a way to slow down Matt Lindeman’s multi-faceted attack, which also includes junior guard Saalih Moore and senior wing Des Johnson, among others. The Lions’ defensive presence starts in the middle with 6-7 junior Denzel Atkinson-Boyer, a shot-blocking specialist, but senior guard Marquis Tomlin and sophomore Saahir Lee are strong on-ball defenders, and the rest of the program buys in to the team concepts. 

Argel 'IV' Pettit (above) and Rustin are trying to make up for two losses to East this season. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

1) West Chester East vs. 5) West Chester Rustin (7:30 PM)
There are three high schools in the West Chester Area school district, and two of them play each other for the right to compete for the district title on Saturday. East (23-3) and Rustin (17-7) play in different divisions of the Ches-Mont, and each finished the regular season atop their divisions, with East beating Rustin 58-52 in the Ches-Mont semifinals on Feb. 8, one week after a 72-62 victory in the regular season. So Rustin has plenty of extra motivation in this one to try to avenge those two losses, and the popular saying in basketball is that it’s tough to beat the same team three times. Those losses to East are the only two Rustin has suffered since Jan. 30, and they got revenge for another regular-season defeat by downing Unionville 62-51 in the district quarterfinals after beating Harriton 67-48 in the opener. 

In the teams’ last meeting, it was East’s senior star duo of Andrew Carr (26 points) and Tym Richardson (20 points) who led the way over Rustin, which got 23 points from junior guard Griffin Barrouk and 16 from sophomore Argel ‘IV’ Pettit. Carr, a 6-9 wing/forward bound for Delaware next year, has been a match-up problem for teams all year long, who struggle to deal with his ability to stretch the floor or take slower forwards off the bounce while also working it inside when he’s matched up against smaller opponents. Rustin needs to find a way to slow down Carr and get easier shots this time, after shooting only 18-of-60 (30%) against East in that semifinal loss, including 9-of-41 (21.9%) inside the arc. 

Playback Games (@ higher seeds)
4) Unionville vs. 8) Radnor
2) Holy Ghost vs. 6) Strath Haven

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