Lions succumb to Defenders, finish tournament in 6th place

NORTHUMBERLAND Playing its third game in less than 36 hours, the Juniata Mennonite boys basketball team laced them up one more time Friday in the Allegheny Christian Athletic Association tournament at Northumberland Christian. Playing for fifth place, the Lions went up against eastern division second seed Columbia County Christian, but their scrappy effort fell short as the Defenders took the win and fifth place, 53-43.

After two games Thursday, the Lions came out Friday looking rejuvenated, doubling down on post players, playing feisty defense on the outside, causing turnovers and creating shot opportunities in transition, but in the end the Defenders were just too much for the Lions.

The teams traded buckets for much of the first quarter and the Lions’ Luke Showers deposited his squad’s first six, where the game was knotted until a Jesse Watts layup broke the tie and helped propel his Lions to a 14-8 first quarter lead.

Columbia County opened the second frame with a four-point run that was interrupted by Juniata Mennonite’s Caleb Gehman when he hit a pull-up jumper.

But from there things went dry for the Lions, as they struggled to establish their offense and some poor passes led to points for the Defenders, who knotted the score at 18 following a skip pass to Columbia’s David Hutchison who knocked down a jumper from the left wing. Hutchison added to his second-quarter scoring total when he deposited a break away bucket to put his team up by two.

“He’s an up and coming kid and you have to contain him all game long,” Juniata Mennonite coach Dennis Zimmerman said of Huchinson. “The other thing is he finds open guys, he’s the playmaker.”

Gehman remained active on defense and with the help of teammate Adrian Martin had a break away opportunity and was fouled as the buzzer sounded to end the half. Players from each team stood at their respective benches as Gehman stood at the line alone, looking to tie the game at 22. He did just that, converting both freebies while grabbing some momentum for the Lions heading to the locker room.

Standing face-to-face with the last half of their tournament lives and an opportunity to take fifth place, the Lions came out determined on defense as they forced a turnover off the Defenders’ first possession which resulted in a break-away basket to set the tone for the half.

After going up 28-24 with 3:44 remaining in the third, Showers committed his third foul and then his fourth with less than four minutes remaining, forcing him to the bench and enabling the Defenders to pounce.

A Showers-less offense struggled to run its sets as Gehman, Watts and Martin were pressed into bringing the ball up the floor.

From there, a 6-0 Defender run was capped by a reverse layup from Hutchison, giving his team the one-point advantage with time dwindling in the third. The Lions were then able to muster two more buckets but remained down by one heading to the fourth quarter.

The fourth quarter became a free-throw shooting contest as each team found itself in the one-and-one and eventually the bonus. The Lions’ offensive struggles continued as the team was unable to establish any productive sets.

“The last quarter there was no offense,” Zimmerman said. “There were no plays run, nothing that we practiced, all just ad libbing.”

Showers checked back in for the start of the quarter after spending significant time in the third on the bench, and he quickly found himself at the free-throw line with an opportunity to add to his team’s total but could not convert either of the freebies.

The Defenders took advantage, building a four-point lead that eventually extended to 10 following a Lion-crushing 3-pointer with less than a minute remaining.

Zimmerman said that he was satisfied, but not happy with the performance.

“I told the guys I’d rather go home fifth than sixth,” Zimmerman said. “You can say that we made it here, but is that enough?”

The Lions (12-9) finished sixth in the ACAA tournament and will hit the hard wood one more time Tuesday, hosting Belleville Mennonite.