Joseph Santoliquito (@JSantoliquito)
Rob Keys wore a big smile, after what was just minutes ago an emotional send off to his and the Paul Robeson basketball team. The Huskies saw their season finished in a 71-59 second-round PIAA Class 2A state playoff loss to Lancaster Mennonite on Sunday at Cardinal O’Hara.
Where bloodshot eyes usually accompany the end of a season, Keys refused to let the defeat or the season’s finish affect him.
Rob Keys (above) had 23 points in his final game in a Robeson uniform. (Photo: Dan Hilferty/CoBL)
The Huskies finished 16-12 and won their first state playoff game in program history during the tournament. Coach Rob Powlen had to piece together a team that had grade issues, injury issues, some players having to be thrown off the team for rules violations, and a lot of other brush fires to avert.
This Huskies’ team leaves with a legacy.
“We knew this wouldn’t be easy,” Keys said. “We had problems on our team and continued to fight, and continued to fight, and we held up. We did a lot of things this year. It hurts that we lost. But what we accomplished with all of the adversity that we faced makes me feel like this wasn’t really a loss.
“We achieved something. We achieved something no other team in the school history here at Robeson did. We were happy to do that.”
With Keys’ team-high 23 points, and 14 from sharp-shooting junior Zaire McLaine, the Huskies almost repeated history again Sunday.
Robeson never led and were down 50-35 with 1:38 left in the third quarter. Then something happened. The long, long-range bombs Robeson was throwing up were dropping. The Huskies’ pressure, full-court defense was beginning to have a telling effect on the District 3 No. 1-seed Lancaster Mennonite (18-9).
The Blazers began turning over the ball. Their offense was thrown into momentary chaos as they tried to combat Robeson pressure.
Robeson’s 16-3 run brought it within 53-51 with 5:11 left in the game.
“They did a good job coming back,” Blazers coach Seth Buckwalter said. “We missed out foul shots and (Keys) is a handful and started to get it going. But my guys are pretty resilient and they handled it. We knew they were going to play zone, and we were pretty confident we could navigate that.
“We knew that they would come at us with a full-court press with lots of speed and energy. The guys struggled a little bit, but like I said, this is a resilient group that fought their way through it.”
In 2017, Lancaster Mennonite reached the Class 2A state semifinals. The Blazers will get District 2 No. 2 seed Old Forge on Wednesday in the PIAA Class 2A state quarterfinals. The Blazers got there using 6-foot-7 junior David Weaver’s size inside. Weaver finished with 15 points, many coming from putbacks against the smaller Robeson team.
Camden Hurst finished with a game-high 27, and Jaedon Mast scored 18 for Lancaster Mennonite.
One thing is for certain. Robeson is fun to watch. Powlen (above) lets his team shoot from anywhere, sometimes within a handful of steps inside the halfcourt stripe. McLaine had no problem hitting a few three-pointers from that distance.
“We wanted to take this further, and I want to appreciate my teammates and this whole group,” McLaine said. “I can’t wait until next season starts. We did a lot this year and we have so much to build on.”
For Powlen, this was a bittersweet ending. He saw his team reach historic heights, and had a tough time parting ways with this group. He left the locker room still with beads of sweat dotting his forehead and his face wore the emotional strain of saying goodbye.
“It was emotional,” Powlen said. “The seniors are great people, starting with Rob Keys, and it was emotional to the point of tears. We had guys out because of grades, guys who couldn’t play because of injuries, guys that quit the team, and we fought through all of it. We held together with a group that was not out full team.
“This was going to be tough, because (Weaver) knows how to use his body and he was going to be trouble on the boards. We wanted to front him, and he played smart. We did make it a game.”
Robeson tired in the end from scrambling around to close the gap.
“We missed a couple of shots and there may have been some slight fatigue, but they made some shots and we had to foul,” Powlen said. “I let my guys take shots all over if they hit them. I’m definitely going to remember this group for a while. I’m really going to miss Rob Keys. He’s a great student. A great leader. He was our heart and soul.”
Paul Robeson: 8 | 10 | 26 | 15 || 59
Lanc. Mennonite: 16 | 15 | 21 | 19 || 71
Paul Robeson: Rob Keys 23, Zaire McLaine 14, Elijah Bryant 10, Hamir Bridges 9, Naseim Smith 3
Lancaster Mennonite: Camden Hurst 27, Jaedon Mast 18, David Weaver 15, Myles Halvorson 4, David Shell 3, Anthony Henson 2, Jaydon Taylor 2
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who began writing for CoBL in 2021 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here.