HERSHEY – Central York boys' basketball coach Kevin Schieler challenged his team at halftime to simply be better.
After being held to just 16 points in the first half and facing a 29-16 hole against No. 2 Reading, it had to be.
And to the Panthers' credit, they were. Unfortunately, just not good enough.
Top-seeded Central dwindled the Red Knights' 13-point lead down to as little as one in the third quarter, but never got over the hump, falling 65-54 in the District 3-AAAA gold medal game on Saturday afternoon at the Giant Center.
“Just be confident handling the ball,” Schieler said about his halftime speech. “I think we had a little bit of nerves, whether it was their quickness or the game, I think there was a lot of nerves in the first half.”
The nerves showed for the Panthers (23-4) in the opening half, committing 13 turnovers against Reading's high-intensity press.
While taking care of the ball was essential to begin the third quarter, so too was making shots. After shooting just 29 percent in the opening half, Central came out on fire to begin the second half. Nathan Markey knocked down back-to-back 3's and then Jared Wagner, who missed a significant part of the first quarter with an injured back, converted an and-1 to bring the Panthers to within three.
“I couldn't have asked for a better start,” Schieler said about the team's third quarter run. “That's exactly one of the things we talked about in the locker room was coming out with intensity and coming out with confidence and to have it happen from our two senior leaders was real big for us.”
But, no matter how close Central got, it never took over the lead. On a few occasions in the third quarter, the Panthers came down the floor with shots to either tie or take the lead, but couldn't get the buckets to fall.
Then, just before the third quarter ended, Reading (24-3) junior Lonnie Walker, rated by ESPN.com as the top player in Pennsylvania for his class, buried a 3-pointer to give the Red Knights a 42-37 advantage going into the final quarter. That bucket was just the start of things for Walker, as he came out to begin the fourth with two steals that led to a 3 pointer and an and-1, giving him nine straight points for Reading and opening up a 48-40 lead.
It took the best player in the state to take over the game to put away Central, something that Schieler and the rest of the Panthers can hang their hat on.
“I'm so proud of those guys,” Wagner said. “We fought and it was just too much Lonnie Walker for us. ...He's so good.”
The closest Central got in the fourth quarter was to within four points, but after a few shots late didn't go down, it was forced to foul the Red Knights, who hit their free throws to seal their 20th District 3 title.
Meanwhile, this was just the second time in program history that the Panthers played in the district gold medal game, falling to 0-2 in such contests.
Markey finished with a team-high 19 points for Central, coming up huge when Wagner was out in the opening quarter to keep the game close and then hit some key buckets in the second half to pace the Panthers' comeback.
“Jared is a great player and when he goes down with an injury like that, you just have to chip in the best you can with his loss,” Markey said.
Onterio Edmonds added 14 points for Central, while Wagner still managed to finish with a double-double, scoring 11 points and grabbing 11 rebounds.
“I was not sitting out a game like that, in the championship game,” Wagner said. “I've worked my whole life to play in the district final. There was no way I wasn't going to play.”
Walker finished with a game-high 25 points for Reading, also adding six steals. Khary Mauras chipped in with 17 points and Oenis Medina also collected a double-double, finishing with 10 points and 11 rebounds.
“I told them in the locker room that I was so proud of them,” Schieler said about his team's effort. “I think the entire first half was just us adjusting to their quickness. They're the quickest, longest and most athletic team we've seen this year and I just don't think we were ready for it in the first and to come out in the second half and to cut it to one point like that, I'm really proud of them.”
Next up for the Panthers is the PIAA Class AAAA state tournament, where they will enter as the No. 2 seed out of District 3.
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org