Loyalsock run ends with loss to McDevitt

HERSHEY — Loyalsock must settle for being Eastern Pennsylvania’s best boundary school team. Again.

Just like last year, the Lancers are the last Class AAA public school standing on the Eastern side of the state tournament. Just like last year, they fought hard, but lost to a non-boundary, private school team as Philadelphia powerhouse Bishop McDevitt defeated it, 73-47, Wednesday at Milton Hershey High School in the state tournament’s second round.

The Lancers (27-2) captured the program’s first district championship since 2015, won more games than any Loyalsock team in the 2000s and four senior starters capped a brilliant run that produced 81 victories. Connor Watkins and Gerald Ross both started as freshmen in 2016 when Loyalsock was in a major rebuild mode after losing the top seven players from a state Final Four team and opened that year 4-7.

Look at the heights this group scaled since then. Loyalsock might not have climbed to the top of the state’s mountain, but it left quite a mark.

“Just 3 1/2 years ago we were trying to figure out how to get the ball past midcourt. We were 14-year-old kids playing basketball against 17 and 18-year-olds. We’ve come a long way and it’s been a great ride,” Watkins said after scoring 20 points and grabbing nine rebounds in his final game. “We made memories this season that we’ll talk about 15 years or so from now when we’re hanging out. I’m grateful to get to play with a great group of guys.”

McDevitt (20-9) will play fellow Philadelphia juggernaut, four-time defending state champion Neumann-Goretti, in Saturday’s quarterfinals. It’s the third time this season those two will meet. A year ago, Loyalsock reached the quarterfinals and was even better this season.

This year, however, the Lancers basically were in PIAA’s version of its Group of Death. McDevitt and N-G have taken turns holding the state’s No. 1-ranking this season and McDevitt looked like a 6A team competing in a 3A bracket, breaking things open in the second quarter and never looking back.

The Royal Lancers were bigger, strong, faster and more athletic than Loyalsock, using a 13-0 second-quarter run to build a 19-point lead. This was one of legendary coach Ron Insinger’s best teams ever, but were simply overmatched.

“It was not for lack of effort. That was there,” said Insinger, who finishes his 45th season with a state-record 1,013 wins. “Some of the guys that normally are burying their shots went cold and that’s a credit to their defense because they were in their face constantly.”

“They were the best team we played (in four years). They’re solid. They have great guard play and the bigs work their butts off on every offensive and defensive play,” Watkins said. “They’re workhorses and I respect them a lot for that because that’s the way I try and play.”

Loyalsock took a 3-0 lead when Aiden Gair drained a 3-pointer on the game’s opening possession, but McDevitt quickly scored the next seven points and never trailed again. McDevitt, a well-coached and fundamentally-sound team, led by as many as seven in the first quarter before Loyalsock closed within 19-15 entering the second.

That was when the game changed. McDevitt forced some quick turnovers, scored rapidly in transition and led 32-15 nearly midway through the quarter. Versatile guard Robert Smith scored 15 of his game-high 22 points in the first half and Jamil Manigo was tough inside, scoring 11 of his 17 points during that time.

Loyalsock answered with an 8-0 run that pulled it within nine, but McDevitt built the lead to 36-23 by halftime and scored the third quarter’s first five points. Loyalsock never got closer than 14 the rest of the game as a quick burst gave McDevitt a 54-34 lead after three quarters.

It hardly was the ending Loyalsock wanted, but the team never stopped battling. When the starters were removed with 2 minutes, 29 seconds remaining, they appeared frustrated, not because their careers were over, but because they wanted to keep battling. And that spoke volumes about how this team reached the level it did.

“We feel like as a senior group, with the underclassmen working us every day, we have one of the best Loyalsock teams that has come through,” Watkins said. “There’s a lot of great teams that have come through Loyalsock and we’re just glad to keep the tradition going.”

“Right now our heads are down, but there’s no reason to hang them because tomorrow the sun is going to come up and they can reflect back on 27 wins,” Insinger said. “I told them I can’t think of one point during the year that they were disrespectful, that they didn’t answer my demands. They were just a perfect group to work with and to me that’s more important than any championship.”

Watkins was outstanding inside, making 8 of his 13 shots and missing a fourth postseason double-double by just one rebound. Fellow senior Anthony Pastore dealt six assists, giving him 16 in two state tournament games. Gair scored 10 points. Ross, a candidate to earn all-state honors for a second consecutive year, grabbed seven rebounds and Bam Brima added six points.

Gair is the lone returning starter next year, but this postseason experience could keep the program going strong. So, too, could having a strong set of young players that have shined at younger levels eager to keep building one of the state’s premier traditions.

“There’s a bright future here. The great thing is they all have a passion for basketball. They love being in the gym and that in itself only invites us to raise the bar again,” Insinger said. “They are going to work hard and we have some hungry players. It’s always exciting when you come back and four spots are basically open. It’s a challenge for everyone because from tomorrow until November we’re going to see who will work the hardest and get those spots. That makes for a healthy program.”

LOYALSOCK (47)

Gerald Ross 2 0-2 4, Aiden Gair 3 2-4 10, Anthony Pastore 2 0-0 4, Connor Watkins 8 4-7 20, Bam Brima 3 0-2 6, Rees Watkins 0 2-2 2, Dane Armson 0 0-0 0, Derek Gee 0 0-0 0 Rohin Sagar 0 1-2 1. Totals 18 9-19 47.

MCDEVITT (73)

Ahmir Harris 3 0-0 6, Jamil Manigo 7 3-7 17, Robert Smith 8 2-2 22, Cameron Gardner 4 0-0 8, Seneca Willoughby 4 3-5 12, A.J. Greenberg 2 0-0 5, Austin Acorn 1 0-0 2, Shamir Mosley 0 1-2 1. Totals 30 9-16 73.

3-point goals: Loyalsock 2 (Gair 2); McDevitt 6 (Smith 4, Greenberg, Willougby).

Records: Loyalsock (27-2); McDevitt (20-8).

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