WRIGHTSVILLE — Losing senior leading scorer Jared Achterberg to a season-ending knee injury was going to be hard enough for the Eastern York boys' basketball team to overcome.
Losing another starter in Seth Bernstein, and Achterberg's replacement in Ryan Harmer, seemed like piling on.
With all three out of the lineup for a pivotal York-Adams League Division II showdown against a surprise Kennard-Dale squad, it was gut-check time for the Golden Knights.
It was choppy at first, but Eastern relied on the experience of seniors Dom Particelli and Evan Springer early and then got key contributions from role players late to down the Rams, 51-42, at home on Tuesday night to remain a half game back of Dover for first in D-II.
"We are super young, so we're trying to get guys' feet wet a little at a time and get them in the game," Knights head coach Jon Reichard said. "Some of these kids grew up tonight."
Amid all the players going down with injuries and illnesses, Reichard also missed the last three games and two practices for Eastern for unspecified reasons. Before his absence, he was working with lesser-used players to help replace Achterberg. That work was brought to a halt during his hiatus.
It took a while for things to click for the Knights (12-4 overall, 7-2 D-II) against the Rams (8-10, 5-4), but things finally seemed to fall into place in the second half. Leading 25-20 at the break, Eastern came out and got into more of an offensive rhythm in the third quarter. The Knights only outscored K-D by one in the frame, but things flowed more smoothly on offense. It was fueled by some timely shooting by sophomore Stephen Wisler. He's one of the players working his way into a more prominent role. He made the most of his opportunity, scoring six points in the third quarter and 13 in the game.
"I'm getting a lot more comfortable with minutes," Wisler said. "These guys help a lot because they're always there to pick me up when I fall down and don't have confidence, and it's tough coming off the bench, but since I started tonight, I feel a lot more comfortable."
As the offense clicked, it allowed Eastern to do more on defense. By the end of the third quarter, the Knights went into a full-court press, giving the Rams some trouble. That carried over into the fourth quarter. The difference came in the middle of the final frame when K-D turned the ball over on three straight possessions, allowing Eastern to grow its lead to a game-high 11 points and really take control.
"We have a press break for the 2-2-1. They've been playing that for a while," Rams' head coach Jake Roupe said. "We know how to break it, but tonight it just didn't go our way. We threw the ball to the wrong spot and it came back to bite us."
To open the game, it was Springer and Particelli who got things rolling. The seniors took matters into their own hands in the first half, scoring 17 of Eastern's 25 points, including Particelli knocking down a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to end the first half and give Eastern a five-point edge. Particelli finished with a game-high 14 points.
"We have to be more of leaders," Particelli said about himself and Springer. "We try to show that in practice now because Jared used to be our main leader in practice, but now Evan and I have to pick that role up a lot more now."
While the press certainly gave K-D problems over the final 10 minutes, the entire game was just a rough shooting effort. The Rams only knocked down 15 field goals, nearly half of which were 3-pointers. They had three players finish with a team-high 11 points, including Adam Freese, the team's leading scorer, who was the main focus of the Knights' defense.
"We were matching Freese to make him get rid of it, and once he did, we weren't letting him get it back," Reichard said. "...He had to work hard for the 11."
A surprise contribution that Roupe did get was from sophomore Jordan Day off the bench. He matched Freese and Donnell Williams with 11 points, scoring eight in the first quarter.
The win was a confidence booster for Eastern, which needed to win a big game to prove to itself that it can continue on without Achterberg.
As for the Rams, they're still a young team trying to learn how to win. Now riding a two-game skid, they need to right the ship over the final couple weeks if they want to make the league and district playoffs.
"We gotta take care of the ball, and once we get across half court, run our offense," Roupe said. "It's as simple as that. We do this stuff in practice. The guys know how to play well together, we've proven it, tonight just wasn't our night."
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at firstname.lastname@example.org