COLLEGE PARK — Select few — only those in the program — gave them a chance.
Even after holding a three-point edge at the end of the first quarter, there was no way. Even after going up by 12 in the second quarter before taking an 11-point halftime lead, there was no way. Even after maintaining their cushion midway through the third quarter, there was no way. But with every dwindling minute, the actuality of No. 13 Quince Orchard toppling not only the No. 1 unit since day one, but a nationally ranked and unbeaten Wise team epically heightened in the tense Thursday night atmosphere inside College Park’s Xfinity Center.
Ruination was all but certain after the Cougars’ 10-point second half lead toilet-bowled into a five-point deficit with four minutes to go, where the blatant disadvantage on paper finally showed. But seemingly no one accounted for the intellect brilliance of compact 5-foot-10 guard Matt Kelly and undersized 6-4 forward Johnny Fierstein under the direction of Paul Foringer, and when the final buzzer sounded, they bum-rushed toward halfcourt to celebrate the improbable: Sinking Wise to advance to the Class 4A state title game on Saturday night.
“Pretty exciting night, huh?” Fierstein said as he walked into the press room. “They’re definitely a really good team. That was the hardest fought game we played all year long. … We saw everyone saying we’re huge underdogs. We knew it was going to be a tough test. But you have to have faith in yourself, and we had faith in ourselves going into the game. We never doubted.”
Before the game, reporters tossed around their prediction, with most agreeing Wise has a 20-point edge. Some thought 20 was too close, and it made sense. Wise boasted four college-bound seniors in 6-6 forward Darron Barnes, 6-1 guard Brandon Howell, 5-10 guard Brent Pegram and 6-2 guard Michael Speight, with Barnes and Speight holding several Division I offers. The other starter was 6-7 center Terrence Gibbons.
On paper, it was no match. But Quince Orchard milked every possession, one by one, suppressing a well-oiled Wise team to 30 shot attempts and only four fastbreak points. When you do the math, Quince Orchard attempted a shot about every 30 seconds, deliberately maneuvering the ball around the perimeter until something cracked. The result turned into a 74 percent first half shooting performance (14-for-19), and a 30-19 halftime lead.
“We knew we had to control the tempo because they were much more athletic than us,” Fierstein said, who crusaded Quince Orchard with 18 points, eight rebounds and five assists. “We were patient on offense; didn’t force anything unless if it was wide open.”
The first four minutes were predictable, with Wise opening up a 10-2 lead. But Quince Orchard never caved in, and reeled off a 13-2 run the to take a 15-12 lead into the second quarter. The Cougars setup in a four-corner offense, spacing the floor for Fierstein and Kelly to lead the charge.
Fierstein knifed through the lane twice to find Daniel Dorsey on the baseline for a pair of jumpers during the run. Kelly drilled a 3-pointer and Fierstein hit a seven-footer to give Quince Orchard their first lead.
Quince Orchard held Wise to two baskets the entire second period, while a Fierstein jumper and Jack Faraone (nine points) putback gave the Cougars a 30-18 lead before the intermission.
“The coaches had a gameplan. That’s all it was,” Kelly said who managed seven points and three assists. “We wanted to hold the ball for as long as we could, make them play defense, something they haven’t done all year. If they had to play on defense, their offense would slow down. We had to take advantage of holding the ball, make it low-scoring.”
After Kelly’s 3 with seven minutes left in the third to give Quince Orchard a 37-27 lead, Wise stormed off a 17-2 run triggered by a Speight (14 points) transition lay-in and Yamon Robinson stepback trey before the third quarter buzzer, which cut into Quince Orchard’s lead heading into the final frame, 39-36.
Thirty seconds into the fourth quarter, Speight dropped a corner 3 to tie it a 39-all and soon after, Barnes (20 points, 18 in the second half) went on a personal 5-0 run to give Wise a 44-39 lead with four minutes to go.
Fierstein halted a near five-minute dry-spell with a layup to bring Quince Orchard within three, and then Kelly’s lay-in off a Wise turnover made it a one-point game with under three minutes to go.
That’s when Colin Crews produced perhaps the most vital sequence in Quince Orchard basketball history — taking a charge to set-up his own go-ahead 3 deep in the lead corner to give the Cougars a 48-46 lead with 1:30 left.
“These boys are unique,” Foringer said. “I want everybody to understand, these boys are unique. They attended the elementary school in our community. They attended the middle school. They attended our high school. These kids are homegrown, and I’m so proud of the fact that that’s the team I have. I have the QO community. That’s who I’m coaching. I think that that’s an unbelievable feat, what they just did.”
Kelly padded Quince Orchard’s lead to 50-46 with 58 seconds left on a pair of free throws, but a Howell free throw and Robinson 3 before the 20 second mark made it 51-50. Fierstein answered with two free throws to make it 53-50, and after Wise got back to within one with seven seconds left, the most unlikely closer, Jake Feidelman, who entered the game for a fouled-out Dorsey, got fouled off the inbounds and clutched both free throws to lock up the palpitating 55-52 win.
Wise did have one last chance to tie, when Speight dribbled up the floor, put on the breaks, and fired a long 3 that sailed wide. Quince Orchard will now play No. 3 Perry Hall in the Class 4A state title game on Saturday at 9:00 p.m.
“They’re the No. 1 team in the metropolitan area, I’d figured they were going to make a run, and they did,” Foringer said. “[Crews] made the big 3, and the foul-shooting was great. It’s Cinderella, when a kid that’s not playing a whole lot comes in off the bench because somebody fouls out, and makes two free throws to win the game. It’s unbelievable.”