Spring-Ford’s Gary Hopkins (22) scores a basket against the defense of Harriton’s Ethan Anderson (12) and Jordan Wright (10) during their
Spring-Ford's Gary Hopkins (22) scores a basket against the defense of Harriton's Ethan Anderson (12) and Jordan Wright (10) during their District 1-AAAA boys basketball playoff game Tuesday night in Royersford. (John Strickler/The Mercury)

ROYERSFORD — Prior to the District 1-AAAA boys basketball tournament, Spring-Ford senior Alex Epps-Ortiz pretty much personified the term role player.

Two games into districts, however, the 6-foot-5 senior reserve has gone from bit cameos to center stage.

Tuesday night, Epps-Ortiz turned in the performance of his two-year varsity career, scoring 16 points and grabbing 16 rebounds as the fourth seed Rams defeated 20th seed Harriton 61-48 in a second-round game to earn their first PIAA tourney berth in program history.

Nick Stanek scored 13 points, Gary Hopkins scored 10 points and Drew Kakareka scored nine points for Pioneer Athletic Conference champion Spring-Ford (23-2), which matched its school single-season victory record in advancing to Friday's quarterfinal at home against fifth seed Pennsbury (a 67-50 winner over Oxford).

Spring-Ford’s Alex Epps-Ortiz (0) is fouled by Harriton’s Alex Shippen on a shot attempt Tuesday during their District 1-AAAA playoff game in
Spring-Ford's Alex Epps-Ortiz (0) is fouled by Harriton's Alex Shippen on a shot attempt Tuesday during their District 1-AAAA playoff game in Royersford. (John Strickler/The Mercury)

For the second straight game, though, no Spring-Ford player had as big an impact as Epps-Ortiz.

"We knew we had a decisive height advantage,' said first-year Spring-Ford coach Chris Talley, whose squad wound up with a 42-18 rebounding advantage. "We told our kids to just keep pounding on them and just wear them down. Alex, to his credit, did it exactly how we drew it up. He just kept crashing and getting offensive rebounds. If you're relentless on the boards, good things will happen.'

Epps-Ortiz provided plenty of good things once he entered the contest with 4:34 left in the first quarter and Spring-Ford trailing 9-4.

Though Harriton (13-10) led by as many as 11 points in the second quarter thanks to the hot outside shooting of Alex Shippen (15 points) and Spencer Dickler (14 points), the blue-collar play of Epps-Ortiz helped the Rams close the half with a 11-2 run to get within 26-24 at the half.

"Everybody — my teammates and coaches — believes in me,' said Epps-Ortiz, who bettered his previous career scoring high of 13, set in Saturday's 72-66 first-round win over Kennett. "I just tried to be aggressive at all times and help out by getting putbacks and defensive rebounds and kicking it out to the open shooters.'

Spring-Ford’s Cameron Phillips (11) drives the baseline past Harriton’s Sam Schlicting (44) in first-half action Tuesday. (John Strickler/The
Spring-Ford's Cameron Phillips (11) drives the baseline past Harriton's Sam Schlicting (44) in first-half action Tuesday. (John Strickler/The Mercury)

Spring-Ford, which shot just 9-for-32 from the field in the first half, finally got into its flow over the final two quarters. Stanek's 3-pointer 48 seconds into the third quarter put his team up to stay at 30-28.

Then, with the lead at 42-39, Epps-Ortiz hit a back-breaking follow to close out the third quarter and begin a six-point spurt capped by his inside basket that made it 48-39 with 6:20 left in the game.

"That was a big jump start, when Alex hit that buzzer-beater,' Hopkins said. "It gave us momentum.'

"We had him on our scouting report (from Saturday's game),' Harriton coach Jesse Rappaport said of Epps-Ortiz. "But we just didn't have anyone who could match his intensity and firepower. I thought he was the star of the game.'

Harriton’s Alex Shippen goes tumbling over Spring-Ford’s Josh Tupper during the first half of Tuesday’s District 1-AAAA boys basketball
Harriton's Alex Shippen goes tumbling over Spring-Ford's Josh Tupper during the first half of Tuesday's District 1-AAAA boys basketball playoff game in Royersford. (John Strickler/The Mercury)

Epps-Ortiz, who had just one double-digit scoring game heading into districts, wound up going 6-for-13 from the field, 4-for-4 from the line and also blocked three shots while hauling down nine offensive rebounds.

"He's been coming in with a lot of energy; picking up rebounds, cleaning up everyone's missed shots and doing what he's asked to do when he's out there,' Kakareka said of Epps-Ortiz. "He's been doing great the last couple of games.'

Harriton got as close as 50-46 with 4:07 left before Spring-Ford closed it out with an 11-2 run highlighted by six foul shots from Kakareka.

"Our coaches told us to keep battling,' Epps-Ortiz said. "We picked up our defensive intensity, and the defense led to offense.'

"We kept telling them, ' They're not going to shoot like this forever,'' Talley said. "We just told them to keep weathering the storm, keep doing what we're doing and stick to the game plan: pound the offensive glass and keep boxing them out.

"In the second half, our defensive intensity really picked up. We challenged them at halftime, ' Can you keep your guy in front of you?' And they did.'

That included a solid effort by Spring-Ford's Josh Tupper on Shippen, who wound up going 6-for-18 from the floor a game after he lit up Coatesville for 29 points.

Kakareka had eight rebounds and Stanek and Hopkins had six boards apiece for Spring-Ford, which won its ninth straight game since a 66-57 loss to eventual Berks Conference champion Wilson Jan. 18.

"They're a four seed for a reason,' Rappaport said. "They're big and strong, and they have shooters. They have a lot of things you have to worry about. They executed well, they had some shots go down and we just weren't in a good rhythm.'

The Rams, meanwhile, continued what has been a season-long upswing.

"Getting into states was one of our goals from the get-go,' Talley said. "I couldn't be more proud of these kids. We're a fourth seed and we only have two losses, but we wanted to prove we didn't sneak into anything and that we belong. It's just a great feeling for our community and for our basketball program.'

"Everybody believes,' Kakareka said. "We worked so hard throughout the whole season, and now that the hard work is paying off it's real rewarding.'

 

NOTES

Harriton visits 12th seed Oxford in a playback game Friday, needing two wins to qualify for states. ... Cameron Phillips had five rebounds for Spring-Ford, while fellow reserve Noah Collins banged home a key 3-pointer in the third quarter. ... Spring-Ford went 14-for-17 from the foul line. ... Pennsbury handed Spring-Ford its first loss (75-60 on Jan. 4) after a school-record 9-0 start.

Follow Darryl Grumling on Twitter at @MercSmokinD.