Then the Red Tornado regrouped, ruffling the Falcons' feathers on the way to another Lancaster-Lebanon League championship.
McCaskey made it a baker's dozen, claiming its 13th league crown with a 62-41 victory over upset-minded Cedar Crest in the L-L League title game Friday night at Manheim Township.
The Falcons started strong, holding a two-point advantage at the break, 23-21. After halftime, however, the Red Tornado outscored Crest 41-18 to break open a back-and-forth affair and win going away.
"I thought we had to play our best game to beat these guys, and I thought we did a lot of good things," said proud Falcon head coach Tom Smith. "The biggest issue in the second half was we couldn't make shots - we couldn't make foul shots and we couldn't make shots. If we make some shots, I think it's a different ballgame down the stretch."
The victory extends McCaskey's winning streak to 23 consecutive games, while the loss is only the second in the past 13 games for Cedar Crest. McCaskey (23-2) beat the Falcons (16-9) twice in the regular season, including the most recent setback on Feb. 1.
"It wasn't like we played bad and lost to a bad basketball team," said Smith. "We played one of the best teams in the state tonight, and we played a darn good game."
Four players reached double digits for the Red Tornado in Diante Cherry (13 points), Aaron Swinton (12), Keyon Cowan (12) and Shaki Staten (10). Senior Killian Klopp led the way for the blue and gray with 15, while Andrew Eudy (9), Evan Horn (9) and Clay Penchard (7) all provided support. Cedar Crest carried the early momentum, holding an 11-9 lead at the end of a first quarter featuring five lead changes. They increased the advantage to as many as six points in the closing minutes of the second, 22-16.
"We were definitely not surprised, we knew we could hang with them," said Klopp.
Trailing by six, Cowan added an offensive putback and Swinton knocked down a free throw to cut Crest's lead to 23-21 at halftime.
"They basically dictated the tempo. We never made them do anything, so they could do what they wanted to do," said McCaskey coach Steve Powell of Crest's early success. "It wasn't what they did; it was what we didn't do."
The Red Tornado stormed out of the gates in the second half, implementing a full-court press and frantic pace.
"We talked about it at halftime. We're normally full-court, eyeball-to-eyeball, and we take our poison and we take our medicine," said Powell. "I told them that's what I wanted to see. Aaron set the tone right away, then Cherry gets a steal, and next thing you know, we're off and doing what we do."
Cherry gave McCaskey its first lead since the 6:00 mark of the second quarter with back-to-back fast break finger rolls. He also drew a foul on his second one, putting his team up 27-23 and forcing a Falcon timeout at 5:53 of the third.
"Tom's a good coach, he tried to slow it down, but the fire was in the belly by then. They weren't going to stop them," added Powell. "We knew what we had to do; we're not going to let you come back."
McCaskey continued to force the pace, outscoring Crest 21-8 in the third. The Red Tornado made 8-of-15 field goals in the quarter after hitting 8-of-27 in the first half. After Cherry's alley-oop feed to Staten and a 3-pointer by Swinton, the Falcons trailed 42-31 entering the fourth.
"We wanted to play at our pace, which we did in the first half," said Smith. "The second half, of course, as good a coach (as Powell) is and with the talent they have, they really forced the tempo into their favor and forced us to take quick shots. Then we we're playing their game."
McCaskey capped off the contest by doubling up Crest in the fourth, 20-10. The Falcons were making their first appearance in the L-L League title game since a 42-41 overtime loss to Ephrata in 1976.
"I can't say enough about my two seniors (Klopp and Penchard). They've played their tails off all season long," Smith said. "They've made big play after big play through this stretch and really got these kids believing and headed in the right direction where everyone believes we can win. "It's a heck of a lot different going into the game expecting to win, then going into the game hoping to win."
Next up, the Falcons will travel to Chambersburg on Wednesday to play defending District Three Class AAAA champion Chambersburg in the first round. The Falcons are seeded No. 11, while Chambersburg enters ranked No. 6.
"Our mindset is they won when they were the 13th seed last year," said Klopp. "We're the 11th seed, and we think we can do exactly what they did."
Powell, who is 395-181 in 21 years at McCaskey, predicts a bright future in South Lebanon.
"They lose two good ones, but they have a good JV team, and they have all those kids back. They should be the team to beat next year in Section One," said Powell. "But don't count us, we'll figure it out.".
MCCASKEY 62, CEDAR CREST 41
CEDAR CREST (41)
Daubert 0 1-2 1, Kern 0 0-0 0, Bucher 0 0-0 0, Klopp 6 2-2 15, Black 0 0-0 0, Penchard 3 1-2 7, Eudy 4 1-2 9, Horn 2 4-11 9 Totals 15 9-19 41.
Swinton 4 2-2 12, Cherry 5 1-2 13, Fuentes 2 1-2 6, Bynum 0 1-2 1, Staten 5 0-1 10, Pinkard 3 2-4 8, Cowan 4 4-12 12. Totals23 11-25 62.
Cedar Crest 11 12 8 10 - 41
McCaskey 9 12 21 20 - 62
3-point goals - Cedar Crest 1 (Klopp); McCaskey 5 (Swinton 2, Cherry 2, Fuentes).
Total Fouls - Cedar Crest 16, McCaskey 17.
Fouled Out - Cedar Crest - Eudy; McCaskey - none.