Eugene Rapay (@erapay5)
After being dismantled by Friends Central’s 3-point shooting earlier in the season, Westtown made it a point of emphasis to shut it down if it ever came across the Phoenix again.
The Moose eyed their chance for a shot to avenge their loss in the Friends League playoffs. Both teams took care of business in the semifinals, with Westtown taking down Academy of New Church and Friends Central dispatching Shipley.
It set up for a meeting at Haverford College on Saturday night, with the stakes raised even higher.
The Moose found themselves in familiar territory, making it back to the championship game for the third season in a row.
Not only did they get vengeance over the Phoenix, beating them 55-36, but they also secured their third consecutive league title. The win also marks their fourth championship in the last five years.
“When we lost the first time, it was definitely used as motivation,” Westtown guard Jair Bolden said. “It was on our court in front of all of our fans. It was heartbreaking, we used it as fuel for this game.”
Early in the game, Friends Central looked to use the three-point line as a means to pave the way to victory. It worked at first, as the Phoenix shot a perfect 4-of-4 from long range in the first quarter to take a 12-7 lead on the Moose.
Friends Central’s offense went at a slow pace, using long drawn out possessions to set up a good shot. Once the Phoenix found a break in the defense, they got it to the open man to knock down the three.
Westtown found itself behind and with limited opportunities to try and score since Friends Central dominated time of possession.
“We expected them to spread it and shoot threes,” Westtown head coach Seth Berger said. “We said, ‘Listen, you have to guard the three-point line because they’re going to make some shots.’ They made some shots and then eventually we did a good job of contesting.”
While the previous meeting on January 29 was a shootout, the Moose did not want to find themselves on the losing end this time around. They came back with a staunch defensive effort to help put them ahead and hinder Friends Central.
Westtown was able to limit Friends Central to just four points in the second quarter, outscoring the Phoenix 20-4.
The Moose now controlled the game and set the pace. Their uptempo style of play and attacking in transition helped them gain quick separation from their opponents.
The Phoenix could no longer afford to have long, drawn out possessions, it needed to score quick. Unfortunately for them, they were unable to muster the firepower to keep up. Their shots stopped falling.
As a result, Westtown was able to take a 27-16 lead going into halftime. The Moose never relinquished the lead from then on.
“We just told ourselves to stay locked in,” Bolden said. “We knew that when we got the ball, we needed to play our game and push it and not fall into the slow ball they were trying to play. When we did get the ball, we pushed it. Once we got up, they couldn’t play slow ball anymore.”
Friends Central saw most of its production come from Virginia commit DeAndre Hunter.
While Hunter finished with 20 points, Chuck Champion was unable to replicate his 28 point performance from last time.
Bolden, a George Washington commit, was a big reason why. He helped contain Champion by denying him the ball and contesting his shots, holding him to only two points.
He also contributed to the defensive end by forcing turnovers and snatching the ball, creating easy opportunities in transition.
It also helped having an imposing force inside with Mohamed Bamba. The five-star junior center was on the finishing end of alley oop passes from Bolden a number of times.
Even when Bolden and Bamba didn’t opt for the flashy alley oops, Bolden could rely on the big man to finish inside, then watch him finish around the basket with ease.
It’s a solid connection between the two that has continued to grow since the day they first took the court together.
“I remember when we were playing at Hoop Group, he knew I was going to Westtown and I knew he was already at Westtown,” Bamba said. “It was already clicking on the court.”
Westtown’s Cameron Reddish, who sat on the bench in a walking boot during their first meeting, was available for the rematch and in the starting lineup.
Hunter, Friends Central’s tallest player at 6-7 who guarded Bamba last time, was now tasked with guarding the athletic Reddish. Meanwhile, freshman Myles Robinson had the herculean task of dealing with Bamba inside.
“I took advantage of it right away,” Bamba said. “I knew it was a mismatch either way. I was going to use my length against Hunter, and then my speed against the freshman.”
Bamba had another big night with 21 points, 18 rebounds, and five blocks. When Bolden wasn’t setting up the big man or his other teammates, he was able to find his own scoring opportunities, chipping in nine points.
Now with league play behind them, the Moose set their eyes on a new goal: the Pennsylvania Independent School (PAISAA) state tournament, which starts next week.
However, they’ll have a few days to relish in their latest accomplishment before going back to work.
“Every year is unique, every year is its own adventure and every team is unique,” Berger said. “I’m going to take this weekend and enjoy this win.”