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See the top 5 plays from Lebanon's 53-40 loss to Hempfield in the District 3 Class 6A Semifinals. Matt Catrillo/GameTimePA.com

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HERSHEY – The problem the Lebanon boys basketball team ran into in last year’s 16-point district quarterfinals loss to Wilson at Giant Center was never finding its rhythm offensively, struggling to shoot the basketball.

Unfortunately, Lebanon ran into similar issues a year later, leading to the same result in a 53-40 loss to Hempfield in a District 3 Class 6A semifinal Tuesday, in what was the third meeting between the teams.

The Black Knights are bound for Saturday’s district final against Harrisburg, which defeated Reading in their thrilling semifinal game, 61-58. Tip-off is at 12:45 p.m. back at Giant Center.

The Cedars will face Lonnie Walker and Reading in Thursday’s third-place game at Milton Hershey. Tip-off is at 8 p.m.

Tuesday, the teams started a combined 0-for-5 from the field, but Lebanon didn’t record its first bucket until the 3:11 mark of the first quarter.

The Cedars didn’t reach double digits until the 1:23 of the half, when a Luis Aquino-Rios bucket made it 19-11 Black Knights.

Lebanon coach Tim Speraw says he can’t put a finger on his team’s offensive struggles on Hershey’s biggest sports stage.

“It’s very disappointing. I wish I knew,” said Speraw, who saw his team trail by as many as 15. “If I knew, I would’ve tried to do something about it ahead of time.”

Even though Giant Center is a much different environment than a typical high school gym to play in, Aquino-Rios says it’s still the same basketball court, and he and his teammates just didn’t execute well.

“It’s just a mental thing,” Aquino-Rios said. “A basket is a basket. If you’re a shooter, you’re a shooter. You can make a shot anywhere. It hurts, knowing the game was right there for us to grab. Just to be in that moment … we just let it go …it’s really disappointing after all the hard work we put into this season.”

And that’s exactly why Speraw thinks everything went wrong.

“I felt like we were confident coming in. We just didn’t take good shots,” Speraw said. “We got ourselves in trouble offensively just getting in bad spots. You name the aspect and we didn’t play well.”

Aquino-Rios looked to have finally grabbed his team some momentum toward the end of the half, after scoring the final seven Lebanon points before the break, earning the hoop and the harm and a 3-pointer just before the buzzer on the next two Cedar possessions. That pulled Lebanon within 21-16.

But the closest the Cedars got to tying the game was at 27-23 with 3:16 left in the third, thanks to a Khalique Washington put-back.

Aquino-Rios said, “I wanted to attack the basket and figure out what I could do from there, and it was working. I kind of slowed down in the second half, and it happens. We weren’t able to do what we had to do.”

The Cedars also had trouble containing Hempfield’s Ryan Moffatt, who led all scorers with 29 points, including 14 by halftime.

Speraw said, “Moffatt hit those four threes in the first half to open it up, and it’s hard to play from behind because they play so well with the lead. We just gave him way too many open looks, and it was something we talked about. He has to be limited and we didn’t do that.”

Though it would obviously rather be playing for a district title, Lebanon knows Thursday’s third-place game is not only a very challenging one, but still critical not only for PIAA Tournament seeding, but simply gaining some momentum back.

Speraw said, “We’ll see where it falls with seeding, but anytime you step on the court you want to win. I don’t know that it really means a whole lot other than it’s a game and we want to play to win.”

Aquino-Rios said, “We just have to keep working hard. Look at each other, talk to each other, and figure things out to get to the next level and finish the season strong.”

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