Zephs fall at states
The Whitehall boys basketball team has been defying the odds all year, and Saturday's game against Methacton High School was another chance to continue that trend in the state tournament.
The Zephs weren't one of the favorites to reach the District XI 4A finals, but they shrugged off the stigma of a seven seed and reached the title game against Parkland.
This time they were up against the Warriors, owners of a 24-5 record and a member of District One, a hotbed of basketball talent whose alumni include Richard Hamilton and Kobe Bryant.
And most prognosticators had Methacton penciled in as the team that would advance to the next rung in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association Basketball Championships.
Whitehall quickly looked to dispel any notions that they weren't the team to move up the ladder in the state playoffs, vaulting out to a 9-6 lead after the first quarter.
However, they couldn't sustain that first quarter success, while Methacton found some soft spots in the Zephs match-up zone in that pivotal second quarter, outscoring Whitehall 17-2 to take a 23-11 lead into intermission.
They held onto the lead the rest of the way, defeating Whitehall 47-39 earning a trip to the second round to play the J.P. McCaskey Red Tornado.
Head coach Jeff Jones was pleased with the way his team started the game. They set the tempo and kept the Warriors from racing up and down the court, a team that was averaging 59 points per game this season.
But they couldn't match their first quarter success, going scoreless for nearly eight minutes as the Warriors seized control of the game.
"We just didn't shoot well in that second quarter," said Jones whose team finished the year at 16-12. "The pace was what we wanted in the beginning and I'm disappointed we couldn't maintain that. We had some good looks, but the ball just wouldn't go in the basket for us."
In that pivotal second period, senior forward Tom Dyer scored eight points on his way to an 18-point performance to pace the Warriors. He also broke their back on a three-pointer as they were trying to claw their way back in the third quarter.
"Dyer's a kid who can step out and shoot the threes, and we knew that," said Jones. "There's a couple of things that you have to give away. We played a little triangle and two; we played some match, but it still exposes some things on the perimeter."
Chad Rex opened the scoring in the second half for the Zephs on a nice drive to the basket. From that point, Brett Radocha spearheaded the comeback as the Zephs closed the gap to eight points. The senior center tallied five points in the third, and then followed that with eight more in the fourth. He finished with a game-high 21 points and also added 13 rebounds to close out his stellar career at Whitehall.
"Brett was certainly the guy we looked to on offense because our second leading scorer is only averaging about eight points," said Jones. "We also looked to Brett on the defensive end to block shots and rebound the ball. He certainly was a big part of what we did for the last three years and we're going to miss him and the rest of our seniors."
Even though the Zephs had an uphill battle since early in the second quarter, they had the opportunity to make it a two possession game late in the fourth with Gianni Sinatore on the line. The junior guard was shooting the front end of a one-and-one, but his foul shot missed the mark, and from that point forward Methacton made enough of their own attempts from the charity stripe to seal the deal.
That ability to fight back has been a hallmark of this Zephyr squad.
"To the kids credit they hung in there and kept battling," said Jones. "We were a couple of baskets away from being right there at the end."
The Zephs were also hampered by their inability to convert at the foul line, going just 5-11 in the game.
Warriors head coach Jeff Derstine said that Whitehall came out and was able to establish their offensive rhythm, something they tried to counter in the second period by quickening the pace.
"They really did a good job of taking advantage of what was there," said Derstine. "They run a really solid match-up zone defense and we had to be patient. But we fought hard and found the open spots and got some easy looks.
"Then it was a matter of us trying to create a little more defensive pressure, and when we did that, we picked up the pace of the game a little bit."
Derstine said that Whitehall's ability to get rebounds, with Radocha converting a number of put backs in the contest, was another area that gave them trouble.
"They got a lot of second and third opportunities," he said.
Both Radocha and Saquon Barkley were strong on the glass despite the size of the Warriors whose front line averaged 6-6.
Barkley finished the game with two points, while Jake Meyers added six, with both baskets coming from beyond the arc.
Senior guard Chad Rex had a strong floor game, finishing with seven points, while Nick Hassler added two from the point.
Jones brushed away the notion that his team was made up of overachievers.
"I don't think we underachieved this year because we have hard-working kids and hard-working kids achieve great things sometimes," said Jones. "Today we just didn't make enough shots."
The game marked the end of their high school basketball careers for the six seniors who've made such an impact on this season. It was through their leadership and tenacity that paved the way to the PIAA playoffs.
They'll now say good-bye to Radocha, Barkley, Jake Buskirk, Meyers, Rex and Hassler, all of whom made this a memorable season for the maroon and gold.