Boys Basketball: Inside Penncrest’s wild journey to states

After two weeks, the second PIAA Class AAAA Tournament bid was sealed by Penncrest Tuesday night in a 49-37 win over Academy Park. The Lions still have a seeding game to play to determine if they will receive the ninth or 10th seed from District One, but the hard work is done. It’s been a tremendous run by coach Mike Doyle’s team, which deserves a second look.

He scored just three points Tuesday night, but Penncrest's Mike Doyle was still ecstatic by his team's 49-37 win over Academy Park that sent them to the PIAA Class AAAA Tournament. (Times Staff/TOM KELLY IV)

He scored just three points Tuesday night, but Penncrest’s Mike Doyle was still ecstatic over his team’s 49-37 win against Academy Park that sent the Lions to the PIAA Class AAAA Tournament. (Times Staff/TOM KELLY IV)

– It can’t be understated how daunting a run this was for Penncrest. Four games, all away from home. Two overtime contests (bringing their season total to five). Three games against teams they had already lost to this season. Two trips to daunting Del Val gyms, including as a massive underdog in the opener to No. 5 seed Penn Wood. An OT win over Springfield in which they trailed late. The Lions haven’t allowed more than 53 points in a game in this run (and the only two teams over 50 needed overtime to get there). Even Tuesday’s clincher began with them scoring just two first-quarter points. And of course, everyone saw it coming after a 3-6 finish to the regular season, including losing four of their last five.

– It’s a little tough to quantify just how rare it is for a 28 seed like Penncrest to make it to states. For one, District One is about as good as archiving its brackets as it is at picking the right formulas to use for seeding. What we can say is that last year, a pair of seeds in the 20s made it to states in No. 22 Central Bucks West (via the main draw) and No. 23 Haverford (via playbacks). The next-highest seed going to states this year from District One is the only team Penncrest has lost to this postseason: No. 12 Lower Merion.

– The march to states starts with Nolan Carroll, who scored a career-high 23 points Tuesday. Our game story hit on this, but it bears repeating: Carroll hit 59 3-pointers in the first 20 games of the season, then two in the next five, then six Tuesday night. He scored 19 points combined over the last two games of the regular season and the first two of playoffs, then 14 and 23 the last two outings. Perhaps most important is this: Carroll shot a comically sparse 18 free throws in the first 24 games of the season; he’s shot 10 (making nine) in the last two games.

– The focal point of the Penncrest offense is always Mike Doyle, a point Penn Wood paid for by letting him go off for 22 points in shifting the balance of that contest. But Doyle has scored just 21 points in the last three games combined (including just three against Academy Park), yet Penncrest has rolled on.

– The reason Penncrest has persevered is that players have selectively stepped up. Nick Ladd, averaging all of 5.1 points per game, had eight against both Penn Wood and Springfield. Drew Hanna (4.5 ppg) has 18 points in the two playback games, representing two of his four highest single-game offensive outputs this season.

– We can’t go any further without talking about AJ Taylor, Penncrest’s frontline enigma. The 6-5 junior who was drafted in to replace the contributions of the transferred Ben Casanova started strong, then spent 10 games on the shelf with an ankle injury. He’s an undeniable low-post talent (among the best in the Central League) but stringing together consistency has been the challenge. Well, he’s averaged 13.3 ppg the last three games, but the more important stat is this: He’s made 12 of his 16 free-throw attempts, including 8-for-9 in the OT battle with Springfield. Considering that he’s shooting just 50.9 percent on the season (28-for-55), that’s remarkable.

– The defense also requires special recognition. Against Academy Park, they limited Travis Smith to just three points. While Malik Jackson of Penn Wood went off for 31 points, the rest of the roster was muted to the tune of 22 points. The only thing that cost them the win against Lower Merion was two 3-pointers by Steve Pendelton in which leaving the cold-shooting Pendleton open for long-range shots was objectively the best decision.

– Penncrest’s impressive senior class – which includes Hanna, Doyle, Carroll, Ladd and forward Chandler Henry – has at least two games left in them. They’ll take on No. 10 seed Downingtown West Friday (again, away from home) in the ninth-place game. Then they’ll get either the District 3 champ or the District 12 champ in the first round of states, neither of which is an easy draw. But at least they’re still alive for the challenge.

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