Chester is where it was always expected to be. Archbishop Carroll is taking a lot of people by surprise.
Regardless of how they’ve done it, the two teams are the last two Delaware County teams standing and Tuesday night, they’ll aim to become the first duo of Delco boys teams to make it to the state final in the same year since the Patriots and Penn Wood accomplished the feat in 2008-09. Carroll and Penn Wood both won the state title that year, too.
While I’ll get to the Clippers in a bit, let’s start with the Patriots.
How Archbishop Carroll is doing this is a thing of beauty. The Patriots have their stars, sure. All-Delco Yosef Yacob is one of the state’s elite players and sensational sophomore Derrick Jones is rapidly developing into a nightly triple-double threat with his great shotblocking skills. But coach Paul Romanczuk has done an excellent job of identifying and exploiting matchups in each of the Patriots’ three state games. Against Berks Catholic, it was a well-timed 1-3-1 zone with both Jones and center Ernest Aflakpui in foul trouble that helped the Patriots get the edge.
Against Pope John Paul II, the Patriots made sure to get Jones involved early and often and he responded with a 16-point, 19-rebound, eight-block effort and against a Chartiers Valley team with one player taller than six feet, Carroll knew how to get the job done. One of the biggest takeaways was how Aflakpui’s offensive game is constantly evolving and improving. I’ll have more on that in Tuesday’s semifinal preview, but his footwork is significantly better than it was earlier this year.
But who would have thought that when the Patriots needed free throws, Yacob would be the one missing and Aflakpui and Jones would be making them? Yacob, who normally checks in around 85 percent from the line and is usually automatic in the clutch, missed the front end of a one-and-one. Aflakpui is usually around 50 percent and Jones is about a 60 percent shooter, but Aflakpui drained the game-winning point as he split a pair and Jones iced it with two straight.
Free throw rarity aside, Yacob was tremendous yet again. He scored 11 points to go with six assists and four rebounds, but his most impressive feat didn’t show up in the box score. Instead, it was his leadership that helped calm down a young team when their leads vanished quickly against a Colts team that shot a ton of 3-pointers.
“It was tough,” Yacob said. “It was really tough, but coach Paul just kept saying to keep your head. We’ve done this all year, so we just kept our head and just played hard. You’ve just got to tell (the younger guys), ‘calm down.’ I think they get it, they’re calm, and they played great.”
Romanczuk saw a coming-of-age performance from some of his youngsters, something that left an indelible impression on him.
“Wow,” Romanczuk said. “I was very proud of them. They could have easily hung their heads when things weren’t going our way. (CV) tied the ballgame up there at 40-all and then we respond. They tied it up again on that 3. We knew this was a good basketball team and that they were going to keep fighting. They play hard, they’re well-coached, but I’m so proud of our guys and their poise down the stretch.”
The Patriots start three sophomores in Afklakpui, Jones and Nick Jones. They also have a junior in sharpshooter Joe Mostardi to go with Yacob. Some might argue that maybe Carroll has shown up a year ahead of schedule and maybe it has, but that’s irrelevant. There’s no guarantee that the Patriots will be back next year – ask Neumann-Goretti about that – so enjoy the ride while it lasts. Maybe it will end in Hershey with a state title.
Chester plays poorly, still wins by double-digits
Because, well, Chester is just better than teams. Pick a day and it’s a different player stepping up for the Clippers. Reigning Daily Times Player of the Year Rondae Jefferson is as consistent as it gets and Richard Granberry has been a beast on the inside, but after that, it all depends on the day. Sweet shooting Darius Robinson hasn’t been as sharp in this year’s state run as he was in last year’s playoff stretch, but he remains a serious threat from beyond the arc. The biggest improvements, though, have come from James Kirksey and Rashan DeJarnette.
Simply put, those two are everywhere for Chester. When the Clippers need a big play, one or the other is usually right in the thick of things. Kirksey’s defensive game takes a backseat to nobody in this county and his length and athleticism gives opposing players fits. But he can also score and his offensive game has improved. For his part, DeJarnette is always in the middle of things. He’s got a great first step and a terrific sense of anticipation on defense. Against Williamsport, his back-to-back fourth-quarter steals helped seal the Millionaires’ fate. Against Great Valley, he had a steal and a layup followed by a jumper as part of Chester’s 12-0 run to ice the game. That all came after he was inexplicably whistled for three fouls in less than two minutes and 30 seconds, a rarity for him.
“(The defense) was great,” DeJarnette said. “At first, you could see they were calling fouls on me. I had to sit out for a little while, so when I came back out, I had to turn it up, play defense, turn the score up. I was real frustrated, so I came back out there, D’d up and we got it done. Got the W.”
As you’ll read in the Sunday Times, I make the argument that Chester winning on an off-day is a good thing for a team used to running teams out of the gym. DeJarnette agreed with that.
“You see what everybody can do (in a closer game),” DeJarnette said. “Everybody goes hard.”
Here’s one of the crazier stats of the postseason. Chester has won its past two games by a total of 30 points, so an average of 15 per game. That’s been with hitting two combined 3-pointers in those two games. There was one from Robinson against Williamsport and one from Conrad Chambers against Great Valley. Two. 2-for-18, to be precise. Imagine if those treys start falling?
– MATT CHANDIK