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PIAA 5A: Williams, Sorber lead Ryan past Radnor in quarterfinal battle

03/18/2023, 1:00am EDT
By Andrew Robinson

Andrew Robinson (@ADrobinson3)

BENSALEM – Nearly every time Darren Williams put his hands on the ball Friday night, something positive followed.

As effervescent as the 6-foot-2 Archbishop Ryan  junior was on offense with the and-one off the opening tip, the forays into the lane, the step-backs and the two gym-rocking threes in the fourth quarter, the most important play Williams’ hands engaged themselves in came on the other end. His strip of Radnor standout Jackson Hicke with 9.9 seconds left kept the Raiders in front by three, a pivotal moment standing above in a closing stanza full of them.

Darren Williams (above) had 28 points as Archbishop Ryan moved into the PIAA 5A Semifinals. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Williams' 28 points and defensive prowess set the tone as Ryan downed Radnor 69-65 in front of a packed house at Bensalem, the teams waging a state-final worthy effort in their PIAA 5A quarterfinal heavyweight clash.

“I know he’s a good player, the best player on their team and I knew he was going to try and get to the bucket to keep his team in it,” Williams said. “I had to really stay focused, sit, play defense, slide my feet and try not to foul while getting a stop.

“You gotta know, I’m one of those guys too, so I gotta step up, take on that role to finish the game out for my team.”

Williams wasted little time getting to work, taking the opening tip down for an and-one layup and he didn’t stop putting his handprints all over every aspect of the game. As the primary defender on the Princeton-bound Hicke when the Raiders played man, Williams didn’t have very many possessions off on either end of the floor.

He had Ryan’s first eight points of the game, 10 total in the first quarter and 19 at halftime. His lone basket of the third quarter came at the tail end of a 12-0 Raiders run that came about in response to a quick start by Hicke and Radnor out of the intermission, then Williams finished strong with two big threes, an assist on Ryan Everett’s dagger three and of course, the strip on Hicke’s layup attempt that went off the Radnor senior and out of bounds for a Ryan possession.

“I almost want to say he’s underrated but defensively, he’s so good and that’s a part of his game people are starting to see,” Ryan coach Joe Zeglinski said. “He guarded Jackson Hicke that whole game when we weren’t in a zone and (Williams) made it tough on him, that’s all you can ask for against a great player like that.”

Thomas Sorber had 12 points and put in a dominant defensive showing. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Williams wasn’t the only defensive difference maker for the Raiders. Big man Thomas Sorber was a deterrent inside, blocking nine shots and altering plenty more to go with 12 rebounds and 12 points. It wasn’t a coincidence that Radnor’s best stretch of offense in the first half came when the 6-foot-9 junior picked up his third foul with 3:42 left in the second quarter and sat almost the rest of the way to the break.

Back in December, the teams met as part of the Diane Mosco Foundation showcase at Archbishop Wood with Radnor picking up an impressive win that cemented the Raptors as a team to watch this season. Nothing changed between that day and Friday night but Ryan’s players were eager to get another shot at Radnor, especially Sorber who didn’t feel he had the impact he should have the first time.

“We dropped back a lot,” Sorber said. “You could see how I was at the top of the three point line and as soon as the person at the top gave it to a wing, I dropped down and that was to stop the cutters. That’s how they usually beat teams, off cuts and backdoor cuts.

“December, we had a game before Radnor and I twisted my ankle that game before.”

It was a new defensive wrinkle that the Raiders came up with, throwing a zone at Radnor early on to keep Hicke and Charlie Thornton from getting into a rhythm early. Radnor had been so good at turning a 5-0 or 6-0 burst into 10, 12 or more straight points all season and while the Raptors did have a few good runs, they didn’t have as many as they’ve been used to.

Hicke didn’t get any help from the whistle either, the senior picking up his second personal foul with 4:28 left in the first quarter, locking him on the bench until the second frame. With Williams on fire, Radnor was staring up at a 23-15 deficit despite an offensive punch from Jackson Gaffney off the bench.

Jackson Gaffney (above) led Radnor with 21 points, including five 3s. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Gaffney who led Radnor with 21 points, the 6-foot-7 forward sinking five threes in total, noted the effect the alterations in Ryan’s defense had early on.

“Putting Sorber in the middle got us off our edge a little bit,” Gaffney said. “We adjusted, we handled it well, it just didn’t end up going our way.”

Radnor closed the first half on a 13-6 run to clip the lead down to 30-28 by the break and with Hicke having not even scored a point, the Raptors felt like they were in a pretty good spot all things considered.

Even with an unblemished record coming into Friday, the Raptors have been challenged plenty throughout the season. Each time, they found a way to come together and overcome it and thanks to three consecutive treys by Hicke and a 37-33 lead with 6:10 to go in third, it seemed like they might do it once more.

"Look, I think when you're playing at a high level, which we've done all year, I think you're able to kind of find other gears and it's not just kind of like a straight path to victory,” Raptors coach Jamie Chadwin said. “And I think this showed, obviously, what we were capable of doing, and it's unfortunate we just didn't get the last two opportunities we needed to connect."

Ryan would score the game’s next 12 points, led by eight after three quarters and with 5:08 to play, had a 12-point advantage at 56-44. There was a moment in that stretch where the Raptors had cut it to five on a three by Gaffney, only for Williams to answer with one of his own, the genesis of a 7-0 spurt to extend the lead to a dozen.

“It’s an opportunity, knowing you have to step up, knowing you’re the main leader now and you have to communicate with your teammates, score, facilitate and play defense,” Williams said. “It’s on you to do everything needed that you decided to step up for.”

Cooper Mueller and Hicke came back with consecutive threes around a Ryan turnover and Radnor would stay a hand’s grasp away the remainder of the game. As much as the Raiders hurt themselves late, Zeglinski pointing out their struggles against Radnor’s pressure defense, the Raptors agonizingly couldn’t get the shots they needed to drop to comply before Williams zipped a pass to Everett in the left corner for a crushing three with 1:13 left that made the lead seven.

Ryan Everett (above) knocked down this critical 3-pointer with about a minute left. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

After losing to West Catholic in the PCL quarterfinals, then to Imhotep Charter in the District 12 playoffs, the Raiders have banded together since the start of the state tournament. Friday, it allowed them to avenge one loss this season and earn a chance at another, with Imhotep awaiting in the semis.

“We were hurting that we didn’t get to the Palestra this year but I really love how we’ve responded,” Zeglinski said. “That’s tough to do when you lose a game like that. We responded, the guys really reset, they decided to take it one day at a time and be focused throughout. I think the focus and energy has been there and you see it in the outcomes of the games.”

In the back, behind the dividing wall and away from the court, Radnor’s players huddled together one final time and shared one of those precious moments that every team about to go its separate ways has. By every measure it was a remarkable season, Central League and District 1 titles and a community they galvanized with every victory.

That’s why Chadwin didn’t feel the need to say much to them afterward, their accomplishments able to speak plenty on their own.

“It's challenging when you get into a tournament like this because there's very few teams that get to end their season on a win, and certainly when it gets to a point where it's this intense, this high-stakes, it becomes amplified, obviously,” Chadwin said. “Ryan played a fantastic game, I thought we played a fantastic game, I thought we worked our tails off to give ourselves chances and just didn't get them to connect. That's what we've been doing all year, is giving ourselves chances. 

“Sometimes it's happened earlier in the game and sometimes it's happened later in the game, but you know, we're disappointed with the outcome of this, for sure, but how could I be disappointed with this group or this season? They're just so special and what they did this year, what we did this year, was so special."

Ryan is now a win away from Hershey and the last obstacle from getting there is what most consider the best team in the state and one of the best in the country. If Friday showed anything, it’s that the Raiders can put the ball in Darren Williams’ hands and there’s a good chance something positive will come of it.

“I think I’ve shown I can play both sides of the floor,” Williams said.

By Quarter
Ryan:    16 | 14 | 17 | 12 || 69
Radnor: 10 | 18 | 11 | 26 || 65

AR: Darren Williams 28, Thomas Sorber 12, Michael Paris 11, Ryan Everett 10, Jaden Murray 6

R: Jackson Gaffney 21, Jackson Hicke 14, Danny Rosenblum 9, Charlie Thornton 9, Cooper Mueller 8, Michael Salvadove 4

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