Upper Darby coach Bob Miller (above) and the Knights stayed alive in the Central League playoff hunt by beating Conestoga on Monday. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Zach Drapkin (@ZachDrapkin)
Coming into Conestoga on Monday night, Upper Darby’s situation was simple: win, or you’re out of the Central League playoffs.
No pressure, right?
Actually, that’s exactly what Royals head coach Bob Miller told his team.
“Believe it or not, I told them tonight that the pressure is on Conestoga,” Miller said. “I told my guys just play loose because we’ve got nothing to lose tonight. It seemed to work.”
Upper Darby marched into Conestoga’s gym and executed the fast-paced, loose style of basketball Miller wanted to see, thoroughly outplaying the Pioneers for a 52-39 victory.
The result, coupled with Haverford’s upset of Garnet Valley, brings Upper Darby, Conestoga, and Garnet Valley to a three-way tie at 10-5 in league play with just one game left in the regular season.
Because the Pioneers and GV face off to close out the season on Wednesday, the pressure truly is now on Conestoga (14-7), which must win in order to make the league tournament.
Upper Darby (15-6), meanwhile, can lock up a spot with a win over Ridley at home or a Conestoga loss, since the Royals also won the home leg of their season series with ‘Stoga.
“It was just nice for the kids to play really good team basketball again,” Miller said. “You got to see the good Upper Darby tonight. We limited our turnovers and we made shots, and if you make shots, that’s the difference.”
The shots were especially falling for senior wing Magd Abdelwahab in the second half. After scoring just two points through the first two quarters, Abdelwahab drained three 3s in the third quarter and another in the fourth to finish with a game-high 17 points, going 4-for-4 from beyond the arc.
Abdelwahab’s hot hand was able to stave off Conestoga from ever coming all the way back in the second half, as the Pioneers brought it to 21-20 out of the half and 33-30 late in the third but couldn’t tie or take the lead.
“They were hugging me in the first half, the second half we tried to get me shots and I was hitting them so they just kept feeding me the ball,” Abdelwahab said. “My teammates did a great job with that.”
“If you leave Magd, he can be deadly,” Miller added. “I just thought the difference was Magd hitting those threes in that we were able to spread the floor on them.”
Upper Darby’s ability to split the defense was a game-changer in the second half. Once the Royals held a healthy lead, the speed of senior guard Jalun Trent was too much for Conestoga to deal with.
If they didn’t play up on Trent, or fellow guard Mamadou Toure, he would sit back and waste time, but when they applied pressure, he cut through perimeter defenders and found a waiting Abdelwahab on the wing.
“As soon as Magd hit [his first] two threes, as soon as we got it up to six, I knew they were going to have a tough time covering Jalun, instead they were going to have to double,” Miller said. “Jalun is just so fast, and when he’s on like he was tonight and making good decisions, once we got a lead, it put them in a really tough spot…Speed kills if you get a lead.”
The Royals built a lead early on thanks to the play of junior wing Diby Keita, who scored nine first-quarter points and finished with 13 on the night. Keita’s and-one with 2.0 seconds to go in the first quarter gave Upper Darby a 13-11 advantage, and the lead never switched hands from that point on.
Nobody on Conestoga could really get it going offensively, and that played a big part in the ending result. Junior guard Shane Scott had a team-high 10 points, junior forward Milton Robinson had nine, and junior guard Zach Lezanic went for eight as Keita and company clamped down on the defensive end.
“Diby Keita…he’s the kid that no one will talk about on the team,” Miller said. “He usually controls the kid he guards, and then you look up and he has like 8 points, 10 points. He’s quick to the basket, he doesn’t care if he shoots, he’s what every team needs, and he’s the kind of person that most people in the stands don’t appreciate but his coaching staff appreciates.”
Things are really looking up now for Upper Darby. Entering Conestoga, it was win to survive. Exiting Conestoga, it’s now win and you’re in.
The Royals have faced Ridley once already this season, and it wasn’t pretty, a 54-42 away loss on Jan. 3, so UD has no reason to be cocky heading into its final contest of the regular season. They recognize that, and are heading into the matchup with the same mentality as they did against the Pioneers.
“We have to beat Ridley. We can’t count on Garnet Valley beating Conestoga,” Miller said. “Now it’s Ridley, Ridley, Ridley, we can’t worry about anything else. These kids, all they said in the locker room was ‘one more.’ So hopefully we’ll be focused. They beat us up the first time, so we’re going to have to do a better job.”
“We just have to play our game and play as hard as we can play,” Abdelwahab added. “We have a killer mentality when we go in the game and we want to prove ourselves to everybody.”