As Jon Reichard made his way back to the locker room at the Giant Center, he turned to his coaches and asked, “Did we just win that?”
He was hardly the only one left asking that question.
For the first half of Monday night's District 3-AAA semifinal game against top-seeded Milton Hershey, Eastern York looked completely outmatched. It couldn't keep up with the Spartans' speed and struggled to break their press, which is a product of the team's overall athleticism.
But, as the fourth-seeded Golden Knights came out to begin the second half, something changed. No longer was Milton Hershey's press forcing turnovers, and Eastern started to hit shots. A once 12-point Eastern York deficit shrunk to 10. Then single digits. By the end of the third quarter, it was just six. By the midpoint of the fourth quarter, the Golden Knights were no longer trailing, but winning. And by the end of the night, they were heading to Thursday night's District 3-AAA championship game after a 73-65 victory.
“This team is a roller coaster in itself,” Reichard said. “We do it a lot — dig ourselves a hole and crawl out of it, win a couple close games by one and then come out in the fourth quarter and really, really play a good basketball game.”
Eastern (22-5) outscored the Spartans (24-2) 30-15 in the final eight minutes, easily the team's best one-quarter output of the season. And it couldn't have come at a better time.
Springer comes up huge: The Golden Knights opened the quarter on a 17-4 run, opening up a five-point cushion, thanks to the hot shooting of Evan Springer. All season long, Reichard has been telling the junior that he's a shooter and that's what he needs to do. Some nights he's off his game. Then there's other nights, such as Monday, when he's lights out.
Springer nailed five 3-pointers and scored 16 of his season-high 24 points in the second half to pace Eastern's comeback.
“I just wanted to win so bad,” he said. “Our team, we were fighting so hard. We practice so hard every day. We come to play every game like it's our last and confidence is key, and when I see the first three go in, I just feel like I can make any three.”
Once Springer got going, his shooting was contagious. All of a sudden, it opened up space for senior standout Broguen Nicholas to get into a groove, as well as others.
Soon, the entire team, which struggled to manufacture any sort of consistent offense in the first half, was in sync. Jared Woods hit the layup that put the Knights ahead for the first time in the game and for good. Dom Particelli, who missed a couple open layups in the opening half, came up with key buckets in the final quarter. And Jared Achterberg even started to see some of his shots fall.
“Not just me does it free up, but our whole team,” Nicholas said of Springer's hot shooting. “He really helps us when he gets his shot going, it helps everyone.”
Ugly first half: After narrowly skating through the first round and quarterfinals with one-point victories, it looked like Eastern finally met its match in Milton Hershey.
The Spartans raced out to an early 7-0 lead, forcing Reichard to call an early timeout. Despite turning the ball over time and time again (22 turnovers in all), the Knights still somehow only found themselves down by three after the opening quarter. More turnovers by Eastern in the second quarter quickly saw it fall behind by as many as 12 points. The halftime hole was 37-26.
“We got on them a little bit at halftime,” Reichard said. “We looked a little scared when we came out on the floor and I told them to put on their big-boy pants and act like you belong here. You don't win 21 basketball games and not deserve to be here.”
The message clicked and the second half was some of the best basketball the Knights have played all season. Suddenly, a Spartans team that had lost just once all year and entered on an 11-game winning streak, was in a fight and couldn't respond. Eastern started making buckets, while Milton Hershey couldn't get anything to fall.
Nicholas finished with 23 points, while Woods added 10 and Achterberg had nine.
“We were under the radar all season, but not anymore,” Reichard said. “We got to the finals, so I'm extremely proud of this group."
Eastern will face No. 3 Bishop McDevitt in Thursday's championship game at the Giant Center at 8 p.m. The Crusaders (19-6) got to the final by knocking off Lampeter-Strasburg, 72-53.
OTHER DISTRICT 3-AAA BOYS' GAME
Gettysburg 42, Cocalico 23: At Dallastown, the Warriors held a command 29-3 lead going into the fourth quarter and went on to capture the District 3-AAA consolation semifinal. Devin Ringler led the Warriors with 14 points. Teammate Ravaughn Dillard knocked in 11 points. Gettysburg (14-9) now moves on to the fifth-place game and will face ELCO on Thursday at a site and time to be determined. Gettysburg clinched a state playoff berth.
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at email@example.com