PHILADELPHIA — The first thing Jacquez Casiano did when he stepped on the Wells Fargo Center floor was take in the sheer size of the venue.
The rows and rows of dark red seats seemingly went on forever. The imposing Jumbotron seemed to dominate arena. Even the court felt larger than a normal high school gym.
However, when he and the rest of his York High teammates were done soaking in all the grandiosity that comes with playing in an NBA arena, and it was time to play basketball, nothing seemed abnormal.
Unfortunately for York High, the memory of playing in such a venue was spoiled somewhat by the 58-51 loss on Wednesday afternoon to Steelton-Highspire in the school's first experience as a participant in the "Court of Dreams" program.
"At the start of the game, the kids were definitely trying to embrace the experience," Bearcats head coach Clovis Gallon said. "It's a huge, cavernous arena. They're on a professional basketball floor. I think, at first, they were a little overwhelmed, but then they got settled in."
Wednesday's contest may have been the most challenging game Gallon will coach all season, and very little of that had to do with basketball. In the weeks and months leading up to the game, he played a key role in ironing out all the logistics of the event. Then, when it came to playing basketball, it was up to him to get his players in the right mindset, letting them enjoy the moment, but also reminding them that this game meant something.
Playing from behind: Things couldn't have started better for the Bearcats. They controlled the opening tip and then Casiano came down and buried an NBA-range 3-pointer. However, the Rollers (5-5) eventually found their own footing, going on a 15-2 run to build a 15-6 advantage before finishing the quarter up by six.
York High slowly clawed its way back into the contest, eventually grabbing a lead midway through the second quarter after going on a 12-5 run to hold a 21-20 lead. Much of that was fueled by the sharp shooting of Casiano, a senior who continued to test the limits of his range by draining three more 3-pointers in the half, each one longer than the previous one.
"I felt like an NBA player," Casiano said. "...The second (3-point line), it was hard to look down, so I was just shooting. I wasn't looking down to see if it was NBA range."
The Bearcats (5-7) trailed by one at the halftime break, 26-25, but came out just as strong to open the third quarter as they did in the second. After Jayden Iturmendi cleaned up his own miss to make it 33-31 York High midway through the third quarter, it felt like the Bearcats were starting to find a rhythm against Steel-High's zone defense.
That two-point lead, however, would be the last time the Bearcats would play from ahead. The Rollers went on a 13-1 run to open up a 10-point cushion, eventually carrying a 44-36 lead into the final frame.
The tempo really slowed in the fourth quarter, with Steel-High choosing to eat clock during its possessions. That forced York High to press offensively, falling into a pattern of taking bad shots. The most success the Bearcats had in the fourth came in the final two minutes, when they put on a full-court press, forcing the Rollers into three consecutive turnovers and trimming the deficit to three.
When it mattered most, however, Steel-High hit clutch free throws down the stretch to ice the game, leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of the York High players.
"It was a tough loss. It would've been better if we would've won," Casiano said.
Casiano scored a team-high 15 points, while Iturmendi had 10.
Offensive woes: The 51-point offensive performance came less than 24 hours after the Bearcats nearly put up triple digits on South Western on Tuesday night. A team that likes to play up-tempo on offense, York High was limited in its fastbreak chances, in large part because of the Rollers' discipline on defense and their nearly impenetrable 2-3 zone.
"Steel-High was really disciplined in the 2-3 zone," Gallon said. "They made us take our time to probe the zone, to attack the zone and to find ways to score the basketball. ... I don't want to say we got overwhelmed by the moment, but I think there was some jitters there. We really wanted to play the game inside-out and Steel-High, for a good portion of the game, took away the high post that we like to attack."
Unforgettable moment: Even though the loss was difficult to digest, it was still a day that everyone on the team won't soon forget.
After the game, the Bearcats were set to take in the NBA game between the Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks.
True to the event's name itself — "Court of Dreams" — it gave the kids a chance to experience something that could be once-in-a-lifetime event.
"The highlight for me is getting to see my favorite team play, the New York Knicks," Casiano said. "So, that's fun. For the first time, I'll get to see my favorite player play, Carmelo Anthony."
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at email@example.com