CHELTENHAM — The littlest man on the court had the biggest impact on the game.
JP McCaskey guard Randolph Speller exploded Saturday afternoon, raining nine 3-pointers and 35 points on Abington. By the time he was done, along with some big plays by his teammates, Speller had engineered a 71-66 upset of the District I champion Galloping Ghosts in the team's PIAA Class AAAA first round game at Cheltenham High School.
The result would be considered an upset to everyone but the group that pulled it off.
"In our mind, we never feel as though we're the underdog,' Speller said. "We just come out and do what we're supposed to do. Today, we did it.'
Abington's tremendous season, which saw the Ghosts win their division, the SOL championship and the District I title, came to an abrupt end. But the Ghosts went down with everything they had, rallying from a 15-point deficit with 2:24 left in the third quarter.
In a sign signifying it wasn't meant to be, the Ghosts got to within two and drove in for a chance to tie, only to turn the ball over roughly midway through the final quarter.
The loss marked the end of the careers of Abington's senior class and headliners Amir Hinton and Matt Penecale, who all helped raise the bar of expectations at the school during their run.
"(Speller) got going, he got rolling,' Abington coach Charles Grasty said. "Sometimes once you make that first one, he's a good shooter and we knew he was a good shooter, he got going early and sometimes you get in that zone. He was just chucking it up there and going in.'
"It's disappointing, I didn't plan on losing in the first round,' Hinton, who scored 28 points, said.
Speller didn't take long to establish himself. His performance defined an out-of-body experience, highlighted by two treys in the second quarter from beyond professional distance. In all, Speller shot 10-of-17, 9-of-12 on 3s and had four rebounds and two steals in a career day.
"The last two or three weeks I was kind of out of it, but my teammates kept finding me and getting me open shots,' Speller said. "I would hit them and it would boost us up and give me a lot of confidence. So I took it every time I got it.'
He drained three 3-pointers in the first quarter, essentially keeping his team afloat while the Ghosts got off to a strong start. For as well as Abington played offensively in the first quarter plus, its defense wasn't up to par. Speller was getting looks and the other Red Tornadoes guards were able to penetrate and kick to their shooter.
"The kid can shoot, his shots were falling for him,' Hinton said. "We couldn't get the same shots that were falling for them to fall for us.
"We didn't really have a good defensive game today, they were driving, getting gaps and kicking it out and he was hitting the shots.'
The Ghosts cooled through the middle of the second as McCaskey kept hitting everything, inside and out, eventually opening up a 34-22 lead with 1:23 left in the half. Abington did close the quarter on a 5-0 run and trailed by seven at the break.
McCaskey opened the third on an 8-2 run, and after a Robbie Heath 3, scored the next four to push the lead up to 14 with 3:54 left in the quarter. Big man Tyler Owens finally found his footing, scoring four in the framem and assisting a Speller triple, while driving guard La'Detrius Sibley also chipped in four in the frame, including the hoop that staked the Red Tornadoes to a 50-35 lead with 2:24 to go.
Abington scored the next four, Speller hit two at the line, then the Ghosts got six straight on 3s by Hinton and Heath. Kobe Gantz (five assists) found Brandon Allen for a hoop, but Heath canned another triple with 1.2 left on the clock to make it 54-48 McCaskey after three.
"We didn't let up,' Hinton said. "We told ourselves it was going to be fine, just play defense and move the ball and hopefully our shots would fall. A lot of our shots weren't falling today.'
McCaskey's foul shooting, which had been decent through three quarters, started to unravel in the fourth. The Red Tornadoes opened 1-of-5 from the stripe though Abington didn't capitalize right away.
When Penecale drove and scored with 6:14 left, he kicked off a 6-0 Ghost run that sliced the lead down to 55-54 with 5:24 left. Speller ended it by sinking two at the line to push it back up to 57-54, and after Penecale missed a 3, the Ghosts were called for an over-the-back call on the rebound, sending Owens to the line where he hit both.
Undaunted, Hinton kicked to Curtis Lochner for a corner 3-pointer to pull the Ghosts back to 59-57 with 4:40 left.
"That's the make-up of this team,' Grasty said. "They're never going to quit. They want it. They wanted to fight, they wanted to get back in it and we had a lot of time left. We told them we had a lot of time, let's just chip away.'
After a McCaskey miss, Abington had a chance to tie. Penecale drove and dropped the ball off, but Abington tried one pass too many to give it back to Penecale, allowing Sibley to snatch the ball. Sibley then raced up the floor, heading for the hoop and drawing in the chasing defenders only to kick it to the right corner where Speller hit a massive 3-pointer with 4:07 left.
Hinton responded with a bucket inside, but Speller came right back with another trey from nearly the same spot to make it 65-59 with 3:15 to go. Yet, Abington wasn't done.
Hinton got fouled and hit both at the line, then McCaskey appeared to lose the ball out of bounds and though the official on the baseline missed the play and called a jumpball, the arrow did give the Ghosts the ball. That allowed Penecale to find Heath (16 points, four 3s) to hit a triple from the right corner to make it 65-64 with 2:41 left.
"They don't worry about crowds or how big the game is or anything like that,' Grasty said. "They step into it and they make shots. They made a couple big ones for us and got us back in the game.'
Sibley scored on a stop-and-pop jumper to push it back to three, Heath missed from long range, though the ball went off a McCaskey player. Gantz erased that with a steal, missed a layup and as Kyaire Bynum grabbed the ball, Abington forced a tie-up, but the earlier call by the officials had flipped the arrow to McCaskey.
Still, Abington forced another miss and grabbed the board, only to have Hinton called for an offensive foul. Abington tried to foul intentionally, but the officials didn't call it until Speller was totally wrapped up, the guard splitting a pair at the line. Heath got clocked shooting a 3 with 34.8 left and down 68-64 and the freshman hit two of the three foul shots.
"This is not our style, this is not our pace,' Grasty said. "We don't like to play this way but we can. It's high school basketball, that's what it's about. Of course you want to control the tempo but when you see its going their way, you have to adjust.'
Abington couldn't prevent Spller from getting the inbound but the guard split his efforts after being fouled, giving the Ghosts another chance with 33.8 left. The Ghosts had two tries at a 3-pointer, but missed both and Gantz ended up at the line, where he split the free throws for a 70-66 lead with seven seconds left.
Trying to roll the ball up to prevent the clock from starting, Abington couldn't prevent Gantz from pouncing on it and putting an end to the contest.
"We had to speed it up,' Grasty said. "We had to trap, we had to give them baskets so we could come back, we sped the game up and they continued to make shots then they made foul shots and that's how you put teams away.'
Penecale scored 13 and had seven rebounds and five assists in his final high school game. Both he and Hinton are planning to play in college but are still determining where they will do so.
There's only one winner in the state tournament and despite all they've done, the faces of the Abington players as they left their locker room summed it up. What they accomplished both on and off the court however, that's something they'll always have.
"They're competitors, they're not thinking about the past,' Grasty said. "We'll sit back and we'll reflect. We'll have our banquet and we'll talk about all the accomplishments they've achieved. Our seniors are class kids and they'll be successful. We're going to miss these guys, they set a lot of goals for this program. They had a lot of people looking up to them, community kids and it was fun, it was a fun run and it's a shame the seniors had to go out like that but it happens, it's a life lesson.'
JP McCaskey 12 22 20 17 - 71
Abington 14 13 21 18 - 66
JP McCaskey (71): Kobe Gantz 2 2-4 6, Randolph Speller 10 6-8 35, La'Detrius Sibley 5 4-6 15, Tyler Owens 3 2-4 8, Kyaire Bynum 0 4-6 4, Brandon Allen 1 1-4 3. Totals: 21 19-32 71
Abington (66): Robbie Heath 5 2-3 16, Matt Penecale 4 4-7 13, Amir Hinton 10 6-8 28, Jack Steinman 2 1-2 5, Curtis Lochner 1 0-0 3, Rob Young 0 1-2 1, BJ James 0 0-1 0. Nonscoring: Brian Close, Brendan Gallagher, Jake Porter. Totals: 22 14-23 66
3-pointers: JPM-Speller 9, Sibley; A-Heath 4, Penecale, Hinton 2, Lochner