CHELTENHAM — It's that time of the season when basketball teams count on their senior leaders.
Holy Ghost Prep was sure counting on seniors Matt England (WARRINGTON) and Zahir Watkins (BENSALEM) in its state playoff opener against Bermudian Springs (22-5).
The duo came through with England hitting for 21 points including 9-of-10 from the foul line. Watkins was also a key component to the PIAA win, chipping in with 18 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, helping the District 1 champion Firebirds over District 3 fourth-place finishing Eagles, 65-53 Friday night, March 7 at Cheltenham High School.
For the game, England and Watkins combined to shoot 11-for-15 from the field. Together, they made 16 of 20 free throws.
"They're our guys — they're our senior leaders and they stepped up. It's a big game — state playoffs,' said Holy Ghost head coach Tony Chapman. "I thought Zahir really played well. Down the stretch, he rebounded the ball well; it was certainly one of his better games of the season.'
"England has been a tremendous player for us the entire year. He really came through for us on the foul line in the final minutes.'
The win — HGP's 23rd of the season — sends the ' birds to a Sweet 16 PIAA-AAA matchup against District 12 runner-up Philadelphia Electric & Technology Charter, which got past District 11 third-place qualifier Blue Mountain. The battle is set for March 11 at a place and time to be determined.
With Ghost (23-6) leading 25-18 at the half, the Eagles made a third-quarter run that cut the edge to five points. Midway through the fourth quarter, the Firebirds extended their lead to nine points and made their free throws down the stretch. England went 8-for-8 from the foul line in the closing minutes. Watkins was 7-of-10 from the charity stripe.
"We didn't panic; we stayed cool,' said Chapman. "The end of the game wound up being a foul-shooting contest and we usually do pretty well with those if we get the right guys on the line — England and Watkins.'
Bermudian Springs didn't come to Cheltenham with a lot of size — all five starters are 6-feet tall or less — but they sure could play defense. Offensively, the Eagles play a motion style offense that's tough to guard. What's more, their players are interchangeable, says Chapman.
"We have centers; we have forwards; we have guards so it was a challenge for us, matching up,' Chapman said. "On the other hand, they had a hard time matching up with us because we could go inside and take advantage of our size.'
The Ghost DID take advantage, outrebounding BS by a 25-15 margin. The Firebirds also shot the ball well in this one, hitting 57 percent from the field (21-for-37) and 4-for-7 from 3-point range. Bermudian made seven 3-pointers but they took more than twice as many shots from beyond the arc.
In the first half, the battle was the Eagles' three-point shooting versus the Ghost's inside game.
"I've said to our guys all year long that if we can get teams into a situation like that, we're going to win nine out of ten times,' said Chapman.
"The talent being equal, the team that takes the most three-point shots is probably going to lose.'
With just seven turnovers, the Firebirds also secured the ball well in this one.
"Our goal is always to keep (turnovers) to less than 10. We think if we can keep it under 10, we have a great shot to win the game.
HGP junior Tim Brennan did a nice job bringing the ball up the court and senior George Armentani closed down on Alexander Huntingdon — who hit for 15 points including three 3-pointers in the second half.
"We put George on (Huntingdon) and I don't remember him taking a shot after that.'
Junior Liam Brennan, of Yardley, continued his 3-point tear, hitting three more from beyond the arc. He contributed seven 3-pointers to the Ghost's district championship win over Lower Moreland.
"Right now, he's pretty confident,' said Chapman. "In this run that we've had through the playoffs, he's taking good shots.
The coach says Liam understands the game enough to know when to unleash a bomb and when to dish off.
"He's been a real key to our offense. Not only does it help with him scoring but it draws (a defender) out beyond the 3-point line, which opens things up for other people inside.'
According to Chapman, his team has its hands full with its next opponent, Philadelphia Electric, which lost to Constitution in the Philadelphia Public League semifinals and to Neumann-Goretti in the District 12 AAA championship. Chapman says don't be fooled by their 17-11 record.
Contrary to BS, all five of the Chargers' starters are over six feet tall. In its PIAA opening win over Blue Mountain, Larenz Thuman led the PE&T with a game-high 23 points. Anthony Harris (15) and Devante Truitt (13) also reached double figures for the Chargers, while James Suber grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds.
MaxPreps ranks PE&T the sixth best AAA team in the state.
"To this point, this will be one of the best teams we've played all year,' said Chapman. "They're big, strong and they are going to present a big challenge for us inside.'
PIAA-AAA PLAYOFFHoly Ghost Prep 65, Bermudian Springs 53
(March 7 at Cheltenham HS)Bermudian Springs (53)
Alexander Huntingdon 6 0-0 15; Neil Mullen 4 8-8 18; Alex Orwig 1 0-0 2; Joshua Stroup 3 0-0 7; Richardo Alvarez 1 0-0 2; Austin Hartzell 1 6-7 9. Totals: 16 14-15 53.Holy Ghost Prep (65)
Michael Kirby 2 1-2 5; George Armentani 1 0-0 2; Liam Brennan 3 0-0 9; Matt England 6 9-10 21; Tim Brennan 0 1-2 1; Joe Braun 1 1-2 3; Andre Puleo 2 0-0 4; Zahir Watkins 5 7-10 18; Walt McHugh 1 0-0 2. Totals: 21 19-27 65.LINESCORES
Bermudian Springs 13 5 12 23 — 53
Holy Ghost Prep 16 9 13 27 — 653-point goals: BS-Huntingdon 3, Murren 2, Stroup, Hartzell; HGP-L. Brennan 3, Watkins.