While Lonnie Walker and his Reading teammates jumped and screamed in celebration at one end of the court in the final seconds of Saturday's District 3 championship game, Central York seniors Nathan Markey and Jared Wagner gathered their teammates in a huddle near the Panthers bench.
There was no reason for the Panthers to hang their heads, they told the underclassmen, because they put up one heck of a fight.
"As the clock was running down, we huddled up and said, 'We took on one of the best teams in the state and gave them our best shot and took them to the final minutes,'" Wagner said.
Despite being down by double digits more than once, the Panthers kept clawing back. Despite playing the top-ranked player in the state, Central kept fighting. And despite coming in as the top seed, the titleless Panthers assumed the 'Rocky' role as the underdog, taking every punch thrown by the Red Knights and their 20 district titles, and getting back up after every blow, until Reading emerged from the ring with a 65-54 victory at Giant Center.
"I couldn't be happier with how we competed in the second half," Markey said. "We always knew it was going to take our best shot to beat those guys. They're extremely talented. There's a reason they're one of the top teams in the state."
With Wagner out of the game in the first quarter with an injury, Markey stepped up, scoring eight points, but Reading still took a 29-16 lead into the half. The Panthers were admittedly a little shell-shocked, Wagner said, but head coach Kevin Schieler rallied his team at halftime and Central came out firing. Markey hit two straight 3-pointers, then Wagner added an and-1 to start the third. All of a sudden, the Panthers were off the ropes and throwing their own punches.
"We went into the locker room down 13 and just said there's nothing to lose," Markey said. "So go out and fight and see what happens. We cut the lead to one at one point so the fight was awesome."
Midway through the third, Batts got by Walker and hit a pull-up jumper to bring Central within one, but they couldn't get over the hump. Walker hit a dagger 3 at the buzzer in the third, then scored six straight early in the fourth, pushing the lead back to double digits. Central closed to within six, then Reading countered and pushed it to 10 again. Central jabbed back with an Onterio Edmonds layup and a Markey 3 to again cut into the lead, 56-52. The Reading crowd, which expected to see their Red Knights pull away, sat quiet, perhaps wondering why they couldn't knock this persistent Central team out.
"We couldn't have asked for a better start (to the second half)," Schieler said." In the locker room, we talked about coming out with intensity and coming out with confidence."
You could make the case that the second half was almost a microcosm of Central's season. This team wasn't supposed to be here after losing four starters from a 20-10 team. They weren't supposed to improve, let alone reach the district finals for the first time since 1984. They were labeled a "surprise team."
But with grit, confidence and solid coaching, the Panthers won 14 games against playoff teams, won YAIAA Division I and gave one of the best teams in the state everything they had. It was a group effort as it has been all season. Yes, Wagner showed his poise with a double-double (11 points, 11 rebounds) while playing through an injury but it was Markey (19 points) hitting big shots, Batts (8 points) bringing poise off the bench and Edmonds (14 points) bringing some toughness.
In the end, it was a little too much Walker. The junior, who is ranked the top 2017 recruit in the state by ESPN, scored 16 second-half points, hitting the Panthers with a flurry of haymakers late in the game and eventually pulling away one last time. In this case, Rocky didn't have the final say, but he didn't go down without a fight.
"I'm so proud of those guys," Wagner said. "We fought and fought, but it was just too much Lonnie Walker."