Playing in front of a raucous crowd just one mile from where they call home, Reading and superstar guard Lonnie Walker were set to kick-off their historic season with a titanic affair against a Philadelphia basketball powerhouse.
The stage was set for Walker and his fellow Red Knights to make a statement to the entire state of Pennsylvania.
When the curtain rose, the Red Knights were nowhere to be found.
Imhotep Charter had stolen the show.
Reading looked like a team that really was playing their first game, while the Panthers came flying out of the gate, opening up and early lead and never looking back for a 70-53 win in a hostile environment at Albright College.
“If you’re going to be the king of the jungle, you have to come ready to play, and we didn’t do that tonight,” Reading head coach Rick Perez said.
“I know what this team is capable of doing,” he continued. “Tonight, we did not execute.”
In what many thought would be a huge night for Walker, who just recently announced his commitment to Miami, the tables were turned, with Panthers’ guards David Beatty and Daron Russell controlling the game from start to finish.
Walker finished with just nine points, on 2-of-8 shooting from the field, as he was held without a basket until the seven minute mark in the fourth quarter, when the game was long decided.
“What we were not having was Lonnie going for 40 tonight, we wanted to force the other guys to beat us by making contested shots,” Panthers head coach Andre Noble said.
“Our guys really followed our plan, David did a great job himself and we always had help defense ready,” he continued.
It was Beatty and Russell, two excellent all-around guards who frustrated Walker defensively and had their way with the Reading defense, scoring 17 and 18 points, respectively.
Whether it was driving and dishing to open teammates, finishing around the rim, or shooting from beyond the arc themselves, the Panthers’ guards stunned the increasingly restless Reading crowd.
“We’ve had a great start to the season with some great practices and we’ve had scrimmages so it’s good to finally get a feel for a real game,” Beatty said.
In addition to Beatty and Russell, the Panthers got valuable production from two top underclassmen. Chereef Knox and Donte Scott, both sophomores, turned in great performances, scoring 10 and 11 points respectively.
Scott was dominant on the glass, grabbing rebound after rebound and outworking the Reading bigs to every loose ball. Meanwhile, Knox, a 6-6 wing, found success inside finishing around the rim.
“If we could get Donte [Scott] and Chereef [Knox] to play like that every night, we are going to be tough to beat,” Noble said. “They fought hard and played with a lot of energy, and that’s exactly what we need from them.”
As soon as the ball was tipped off, it was clear that Imhotep was just a step faster to every loose ball, making better passes, and executing the offense more effectively.
The Phantoms jumped out to an early 15-4 lead, with Scott scoring seven of his 11 points in the opening quarter. As the turnovers began to pile up for the Red Knights (seven in the first quarter), and the Alrbight crowd groaned waiting for a furious comeback charge, the Imhotep lead just kept growing and growing.
“We didn’t do the things that we have practiced,” Perez said. “Tonight was what disorganized talent looks like when you try to force the issue.”
The more Reading tried to force the issue and push the pace, the worse the offense seemed to execute. By the midpoint of the third quarter, all hopes of a comeback, or Walker’s first real impact on the game, had faded.
“Our intensity and our ball pressure really startled them early and coach always tells us we always have to play defense first before offense,” Beatty said. “We scrimmaged Archbishop Wood and St. Anthony’s and that prepared us for a game like tonight to find our identity.”
The schedule doesn’t get any easier for Imhotep, with Neumann-Goretti and Martin Luther King both on the horizon in the coming week.
“We’re just taking it one day at a time and focusing on the next game,” Russell said.
But for now, Imhotep can take a bow.
In the first game of the doubleheader at Albright, Pennsbury smothered the Berks Catholic offense for all of the first three quarters, holding the Saints to just 20 points, in an eventual 55-40 win.
Thanks to senior forward Mark Flagg, the Falcons dominated on the inside, with the 6-7 forward registering 21 points, 8 blocks, and 7 rebounds in a great all-around interior performance.
Casey Jack scored 11 points in the final quarter to lead the Saints, finishing with 19 on the night.
Another bright spot for the Falcons was 6-4 sophomore wing Gary Francis, who was very efficient, scoring 16 points off the bench. Francis will look to make a bigger impact as the season progresses, as he’s a physical wing who can both drive the line and shoot it from beyond the arc.