Jeff McDevitt (@JeffMcDev)
Down five with just over two minutes to play, Conestoga point guard Darryl Caldwell picked up a steal, forwarded the ball ahead to Dan Vila, who kicked it to sharpshooter Zach Yonda. Yonda, who was all alone in the corner, was able to drill the open three due to some head-hanging on the other end by La Salle players who were supposed to be back on defense.
Most notably Shawn Witherspoon.
Yonda drilled the three to cut the Explorer lead to two, forcing La Salle head coach Joe Dempsey to call a timeout. The momentum favored the Pioneers, but out of the timeout, Witherspoon repented for his defensive sins on the offensive end, driving through the teeth of the Conestoga defense and finishing a left-handed layup, plus the foul.
That layup put La Salle back up five and they would hold on for a 64-58 win over Conestoga in the opening round of the PIAA AAAA state playoffs. They will move on to face the winner of Spring Ford and Cedar Crest on Wednesday night.
“I couldn’t let my team down, we needed a bucket. After we called a timeout that was like the worst scenario, not executing out of a timeout. It was my fault they got the open three so I had to do something,” Witherspoon said.
“I didn’t hustle back on defense like I should have.”
The junior guard Witherspoon scored 13 of his team-high 19 points in the second half, as the Explorers (20-6) were up as many as 13 before Conestoga came storming back. Junior big man Dave Krmpotich chipped in 18. Early in the fourth with a lead, it was clear Dempsey wanted to take off large chunks of clock with each possession his team had.
Some questioned why the Explorers would take the foot off the gas when they were building an insurmountable lead, but Dempsey had one main concern: foul trouble.
“That’s the $64 question. I’ll tell you why we didn’t (keep pushing), we we’re already in the bonus, so I figured the more they had the ball the better chance we had of fouling. It wasn’t just to play keep away, more to protect ourselves on the defense end,” Dempsey said.
Mike Troy’s squad countered with some trapping and increased pressure in the half court, which led to the turnovers that brought the Pioneers (23-5) back into it.
“I think we lost our focus. I think we thought the lead was too big and didn’t stay aggressive. We weren’t aggressive on offense or defense and that’s what let them come back. They would shoot an air ball but then beat us to the rebound and get an and-one layup. That small stuff turned in to big stuff,” Witherspoon said.
The main guy grabbing those air-balls was junior forward Martin Dorsey, who had a game-high 22 points to go with 10 rebounds. Caldwell had some tough finishes in the lane en route to 13 points, while the senior Yonda finished with 10 in his last career game before heading to Swarthmore. One of Conestoga’s leading scorers, Andrew Diehl, finished with nine, but was sidelined for much of the second half with an injury suffered while trying to block a shot on a Sean Greenberg layup.
Witherspoon’s backcourt mate, Najee Walls, finished with 11. It was clear the effect playing a full Catholic League season had on the two junior guards for La Salle.
“Just tremendous,” Dempsey said of his backcourt. “I told those two before the game that Conestoga’s a good team, but you’ve been through the wars of the Catholic League. You’re two battle-tested All-Catholic guards, and they came through.”
In a game between two disciplined, well-coached teams, it was Witherspoon’s late layup that became the highlight play. As the ball fell through the hoop, the junior let out a yell of celebration, more in relief that he made the shot, than the fact that it ended up being the key basket in a big Explorer win.
“My coach always tells me to never let anyone see what you’re thinking and always have a straight face, but on that was I was so excited that I made the layup I couldn’t keep it in,” Witherspoon said, laughing.
“I knew I was going to get ripped if I didn’t.”