Kevin Dodds (above) and Bishop Shanahan haven't won a district championship since 1995. (Photo: Tommy Smith/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
A season ago, Bishop Shanahan’s game plan was generally to play slow and steady, to limit possessions, to operate an efficient half-court offense and keep plenty of games in the 40s and 50s. But as Ken Doyle’s Eagles have matured over the last 16 months, so too has their ability to turn up the pace when needed -- even against opponents that last year would have tried to run Shanahan out of the gym.
That was apparent enough in Shanahan’s win in the District 1 5A semifinals on Wednesday, when instead of trying to slow Chester down, the Eagles actually ran with and then away from the Clippers.
Now in the finals of the sixteen-team bracket, which will take place at Temple University’s Liacouras Center at 2 PM on Saturday, second-seeded Shanahan (22-4) will find itself in an interesting position: going up against a top-seeded Penncrest squad that is tailor-made to win low-scoring, grind-it-out games. So it’s the Eagles who will have to try to do exactly what its opponents tried to do to it a year ago -- but if it doesn’t work out, they’re used to working for every single point.
“We’re going to try and pick the tempo up because we feel like we have some advantages that we can possibly exploit, so we’re going to try and do some things like make them a little uncomfortable because we know they like to play it lower,” Doyle said. “But if it settles into a [low-scoring] game, we’re not going to try and force things that aren’t there.
“So if it turns out to be one of those games that’s in the 30s, it turns out to be one of those games in the 30s. It’s going to be dictated on how the first half, first quarter goes. If we’re able to push it a bit, do those things, then we might be able to score the ball at a little bit higher clip.”
Since the new year, Shanahan has scored more than 60 points in 12 games, double the number of times Penncrest has done so; last year, the Eagles only hit that benchmark three times after January 1. They did it in winning the Ches-Mont championship this year, 60-58 over Coatesville, and in getting past Chester, 61-47, both games they lost a year ago.
It certainly helps that Doyle has plenty of scoring options. The most important piece is 6-foot-6, 220-pound senior forward Kevin Dodds, a D-II Gannon (Pa.) commit who went for 23 points, 15 rebounds and three assists in the win over Chester. He’s one of four seniors in the starting lineup, along with 6-4 slashing wing Thomas Ford, 5-11 combo guard Danny DiBeneditto and 5-9 point guard David Angelo, the team’s best outside shooter. That quartet is joined by junior guard Joe O’Malley, whose classmate Phil Chernard brings 3-point shooting off the bench.
All in that top five are double-figure scoring threats, and they’ve got the confidence and know-how to play smart and quick even throughout 32 minutes in a district championship game.
“We’re in much better shape now,” Dodds said. “We realized that one of the factors that cost us last year was that we were out of shape, so we made sure that we worked in the offseason as hard as we could, so we could stay in shape at the end of the year.”
Mike Doyle (above) has led Penncrest to 10 consecutive district tournaments. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
The Lions (24-3) are back in familiar territory, having won the first-ever District 1 5A tournament a year ago. This is the 10th consecutive year that Mike Doyle -- no relation to the Shanahan coach -- has had his team in districts, and though they had to replace three starters from last year, this years’ version might just be better.
They certainly are on the defensive end, where a unit led by seniors Chris Mills and Justin Heidig has held four consecutive opponents to 40 points or fewer, and has given up exactly 0 first-quarter points on three separate occasions this season.
That’s without a big man standing taller than 6-4 junior Matt Arbogast, though the 6-3 Mills and 6-3 junior Malcolm Williams join Arbogast in their willingness to go up against anybody.
“We just try to play as hard as we possibly can on defense,” said Mike Doyle, a former St. Joe’s assistant under Phil Martelli now in his 15th season as the Penncrest head coach. “We challenge ourselves to just really, really guard you and make you uncomfortable.
“We’re going to have to do that [against Shanahan] for us to be successful, we cannot just let them roam freely on the perimeter, we have to make them know that we’re here, that we’re playing defense.”
Shanahan will be going for its first district championship since 1995; Penncrest, which finished as the runner-up in the Central League to Lower Merion, is trying to defend only the second title in its history, after winning last year for the first time since 1968.
Leading the way for the third year in a row is senior guard Tyler Norwood, who’s entering the final few games of a career that’s seen him win Central League Player of the Year honors and a district title, as well as become the school’s all-time leading scorer with over 1,500 points. The 5-foot-10 sharpshooter has scored more than half of his teams’ points on several occasions, though he’s lately been getting more regular double-digit help from the likes of Arbogast and Williams.
“He’s totally the key,” Ken Doyle said. “We’re going to try to slow him down, someone that well, he always gets his points, and he’s doing it against everybody. We understand he’s going to score the basketball, we just have to limit his scoring in bunches and make him earn everything he does get, make him work super-hard and just try to wear him out.”
One thing is clear about Saturday’s championship game. With two senior-laden teams that had their sights set on this stage all season long, don’t expect either of them to disappoint. And whether this game is played in the 30s or in the 60s, expect it to be close.