Looking to end a 20-year league playoff drought, the Vikings dropped a 70-67 double-overtime heartbreaker to Lampeter-Strasburg on Tuesday night in their Lancaster-Lebanon League Section Three regular-season finale.
NL, who last qualified for the L-L postseason in 1992-93, overcame a 13-point deficit before draining a buzzer-beater at the end of regulation to force OT. The Pioneers survived the extra sessions on Austin Smucker's deft free-throw shooting. Smucker canned 7-of-8 from the charity stripe and scored 11 of his 15 points in the OTs.
"To their credit, they made some big shots," Viking head coach Gary Bouchette said. "It went back-and-forth. We had the opportunities to win it, too."
Northern Lebanon's junior point guard Sam Light led all scorers with 27 points. Senior Pat Stevens, who splashed a baseline jumper at the end of regulation, added 18 in defeat. Pioneers J.D. Achille (24 points) and Jake Sweger (23) combined for 47.
The loss leaves NL at 15-7 overall (10-6 in the L-L) and on the fringe for the District Three Class AAA bracket. The Vikings entered Tuesday ranked No. 16 in a field that only invites the top 18.
"With this numbers system, it's so hard to predict," said Bouchette, who will likely have to wait for final rankings to be released following tonight's games.
L-S, meanwhile, travels to Section Two champion Elizabethtown for the first round of the L-L League playoffs on Monday. The Pioneers (15-7 and 12-4) entered Tuesday ranked No. 14 in the Class AAAA field, which accepts the top 20.
"I was sick to my stomach all day thinking about the game," a relieved Pioneer head coach John Achille said. "They had a lot to play for, we had a lot to play for. We knew we were going to get their best. We got off to a great start."
The visitors utilized size and strength to pull ahead 21-8 at the end of the first quarter. J.D. Achille, a 6-foot-3 junior and coach's son, scored 11 points in the opening frame. Sweger, a 6-foot-4 senior, added eight.
"I don't think we did a good job last time we played them of taking advantage of the length difference," said Achille, referring to NL's 65-58 road victory on Jan. 9. "I really thought we did a nice job getting into Jake and (J.D.). We just felt in a one-on-one situation, they couldn't stop either of those guys."
The Vikings' surge started late in the second quarter, courtesy of Stevens and Light. The duo accounted for 14 of NL's 16 points in the period, cutting the lead down to 29-24 by halftime.
"Honestly, even when it was 21-8, I knew that they were going to make a run," added Achille. "They're a good team. They got four guys that can put the ball in the basket."
Neither team budged in the third quarter as L-S carried a 42-36 margin into the fourth.
"We just started out slow, and for some reason, we've done that too many times this year," explained Bouchette. "At halftime I told them, 'We can't look to win it in the third quarter. We just have to keep chipping away, chipping away, chipping away and see where things fall at the end.'"
NL outscored the visitors 15-9 in the final quarter to draw even. Down by five in the final 30 seconds, Light connected on a 3-pointer and Sweger missed the front end of a one-and-one to set up Stevens' heroics. Following a Viking timeout with 10.2 ticks left, Stevens sent the "Blue Zone" student section into bedlam with his buzzer-beater from the baseline.
"They were supposed to jump on the 3-point shot, and we were actually supposed to get a slip underneath," Stevens said. "Well, the slip didn't happen so Sunshine (Daymon Long) popped middle, and I didn't know how much time was left so I just heard 'Get it off, get it off.'"
The home team appeared to be headed for victory in the first overtime, building a 57-53 advantage with 1:12 remaining. But J.D. Achille and Sweger answered with back-to-back buckets. Light then missed a 3-pointer on NL's final possession of the first OT.
"He's hard to slow down. (Light's) just a phenomenal player," said Achille. "Some of those shots he makes going in the lane - twisting or turning - with guys 6-3 trying to block his shot, and he still finds a way to finish it."
In the second OT, Shawn Singh and Smucker scored consecutive buckets before the Pioneers' parade to the charity stripe started. Smucker missed his first attempt, then stuck seven straight. Isaac Ray and Long both splashed 3-balls in the final minute, although Stevens' desperation half-court heave was off target.
"It was the funnest game I ever played in. Win or lose, we ended with a bang," said Stevens. "It's a waiting game right now."
The contest, played in front of a packed house, marked the final home game for three NL seniors in Stevens, Jon Lum and George Sherk.
"Could you hear?" joked Bouchette of the volume level. "At times I was trying to call stuff for my kids and they couldn't hear me. I was yelling foul there at the end (with 1:07 left) and we didn't foul 'til there was 22 seconds left. They couldn't hear me. They were just playing with emotions."