Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
COATESVILLE — As yet another Imhotep defensive possession ended with yet another contested Chester shot missing its mark, another empty trip down the floor for the Clippers, Andre Noble pumped his fist emphatically, the longtime ‘Tep coach thrilled by what he was seeing from his Panthers.
Justin Edwards (above) scored a team-high 18 points on Saturday. (Photo: Dan Hilferty/CoBL)
The bastion of Chester fans who had shown up to Coatesville Area Senior High School, packing the gym with shades of orange and black, were silent, dismayed at not just the 21-point deficit but the dominant way Imhotep had handled itself during the PIAA Class 5A semifinal, a smothering blanket on what had been a scorching-hot Chester squad.
And it was only halftime.
“I felt we took the crowd out of it,” Noble said. “We couldn’t ask for much more than what we got that first half.”
Though Chester’s crowds found a couple brief third-quarter moments to get loud, Imhotep’s effort never waned, the Panthers earning yet another trip to Hershey with a 66-41 win over the Clippers. It’ll be the eighth time that they’ve gone to the PIAA championships under Noble, the team’s only head coach since the program’s inception in 2001; they haven’t lost a title game yet.
It was a dominant showing by Imhotep Charter (27-4), who led 16-4 after one quarter and never looked back, taking a 39-18 advantage into the break; the margin got to 30 with four minutes left in regulation before Noble pulled his starters.
The Panthers were just about perfect early on, going the entire first half without committing a turnover while getting Chester (22-3) to cough it up 11 times before the break, finishing with a 15-6 advantage in turnovers. Imhotep shot nearly 50% from the floor (25-of-53) while holding Chester below 30% (13-of-47).
Just three days after nearly losing to a scrappy Marple Newtown squad in what would have been the upset of the PIAA playoffs, squeaking by with a 44-39 victory, the Panthers once again looked like the team widely expected to hoist the title next Friday night.
“Really proud of our effort the guys had today, did a really good job of executing what we worked on this week,” Noble said. “I thought our guys were really locked in and focused.”
Ahmad Nowell (above) will be playing in his second state championship in as many years after scoring 13 points on Saturday. (Photo: Dan Hilferty/CoBL)
To earn the program’s eighth trophy, Imhotep will take on New Castle (26-2), the District 7 runners-up who beat Gateway in the other state semifinal on Saturday.
Chester (21-4), which was without head coach Keith Taylor (illness), got 10 points from senior Breilynd White, followed by three sophomores — Kevin Rucker (9), Larenzo Jerkins (8) and Kyree Womack (7) — in the scoring column.
The Clippers briefly got into the game early in the third quarter, with a White 3-pointer, foul shots and a bucket cutting the deficit down closer to single digits, but Imhotep quickly responded, re-establishing a 16-point lead with two minutes left in the third, and expanding that to 23 by the end of the period. The deluge of Chester fans in attendance stayed around until the final couple minutes, when Imhotep emptied the bench and celebrated.
Just about everybody on the Imhotep roster had something to do with the win, from its high-major Division I prospects though its lesser-heralded ballplayers.
Justin Edwards, the top-five junior with offers from you name it, finished with 18 points and eight rebounds, the bouncy 6-foot-7 junior capable of doing things on the court few can make, whether it’s weaving his way through traffic and using his impossibly long wingspan to get around defenders and lay the ball in or rise well above the court to knock down a high-arcing jumper, or use that length to get in every passing lane imaginable.
Ahmad Nowell, the muscular sophomore guard with offers from Auburn and Kansas, had 13 points, seven rebounds and three steals, expertly getting to the hoop through and around two or even three defenders at a time. Rahmir Barno, his backcourt mate, a junior with offers from Temple, La Salle, Drexel and more, played a terrific two-way game with nine points, five rebounds, seven assists and four steals, finding Edwards and Rider commit Mo Abdullah (8 points) for a couple lobs.
There were smaller contributions from senior forward Amaury Hunter, who had a put-back basket and four rebounds, and sophomore forward Ma’Kye Taylor, who had four points, two rebounds and two blocks.
Ronny Raphael (above) was also part of the 2019 Panthers team that made the state final. (Photo: Dan Hilferty/CoBL)
Ronny Raphael, senior guard and Gannon commit, popped off the bench for 11 first-half points, keeping the offense flowing when Edwards sat the second quarter with a couple fouls.
“He’s a senior, he played like a senior,” Edwards said. “That’s all I can say about that, is him being a senior and stepping up.”
“He’s been great this whole playoff run. Ronny’s been great,” Noble said. “(Public League playoffs) and all the way through the state run, he’s been big-time for us.”
The only member of the rotation around the last time Imhotep made a state final, in 2019 (when he was sitting at the end of the varsity bench), Raphael can’t wait to have his say in the matter this time around.
“I won it as a freshman, but I think I want to go get my own,” he said. “Just go out there and make your own legacy, I think that’s what it is. Just go make your own legacy.”
For Nowell, the state championship game will be his second in as many years after helping Houston High School (Tenn.) to the TSSAA Class AAA championship last year, playing alongside Memphis freshman Jonathan Lawson and LSU freshman Jerrell Colbert.
The Philadelphia native returned home last year, enrolling at Imhotep and adding yet another terrific piece to Noble’s stable.
“It’s great to put on for my city, and it’s a great experience, going to another state championship in another state,” Nowell said, “so I’m just looking forward to it on Friday.”
What did he learn about what it takes to capture a state crown?
“It’s great to have a leader,” he said, “someone that’s just going to guide us in the right direction when we’re slipping. When we’re all on the same page, anything can be possible.”
Chester: 4 | 14 | 12 | 11 || 41
Imhotep: 16 | 23 | 14 | 13 || 66
Chester: 13-47 FG (4-16 3PT), 11-15 FT
Imhotep: 25-53 FG (5-17 3PT), 11-14 FT
Chester: Breilynd White 10, Kevin Rucker 9, Larenzo Jerkins 8, Kyree Womack 7, Qadir Lowrie 5, Isaiah Freeman 2
Imhotep: Justin Edwards 18, Ahmad Nowell 13, Ronny Raphael 11, Rahmir Barno 9, Mo Abdullah 8, Ma’Kye Taylor 4, Amaury Hunter 2, Devin Booker 1