WEST CHESTER TWP. — Clint Adkins fell to a knee outside of the locker room. He was taking in the anguish, the dejection. He was absorbing the agony of defeat for his Lakota East High School boys basketball team.
“Our guys wanted this one so bad,” said a misty-eyed Adkins. “They wanted this one so stinking bad.”
The 15th-seeded Thunderhawks played the type of game they needed to play in order to beat the No. 2 Moeller Crusaders on Saturday afternoon. They mounted a nine-point lead in the third quarter, Trey Perry was in usual form and Moeller’s stud AJ McBride fouled out with 5:30 remaining.
But the Crusaders did everything they needed to do in order to hang around.
Moeller got 13 points from Eric Mahaffey — who was clutch down the stretch — and McBride finished with 12 points and seven rebounds as the Crusaders battled back to steal a 51-50 victory from Lakota East in a Division I sectional final at Lakota West.
“Leading up to this point, all we wanted to do was just get better every single day,” Thunderhawks senior Lebron Powell said. “The main focus coming into this game — and every single game — was to get better. We continued to do that.”
Lakota East looked far from being an 11-13 program the last two weeks. The Thunderhawks had won three straight heading into Saturday — including Greater Miami Conference wins against Hamilton and Sycamore. They rolled through Withrow to get to Moeller.
It was a loss Adkins took personally.
“It’s a special group of young men — who for me have brought back my love and passion for coaching,” said Adkins, who concluded his ninth season at the East helm. “It’s a great group of seniors and a great group of kids who care about each other. They legitimately care about each other. It was so fun to go to practice every day with those boys — just to compete with them and to see their growth from November until now.
“That’s why this hurts so bad.”
But the Thunderhawks were feeling good through three quarters, thanks to the persistent performance by Perry — who had a game-high 21 points.
Perry drained a 3-pointer and grabbed a steal and layup to put Lakota East on top 16-11 at the end of the first quarter.
Julian Mitchell, who had 13 points, knocked down a trey to give the Thunderhawks their largest lead of the game at 31-22 a minute into the second half.
But Moeller never went away.
“I knew we had our hands full,” Crusaders coach Carl Kremer said of Lakota East. “We knew they were going to come ready to play. And after we got on the floor with them, they looked better than I thought.”
Donovan Mukes sunk a 3 with 45 seconds left in the third frame to bring Moeller to within 38-36. Lakota East scored six straight to take a 44-36 lead at the start of the fourth.
McBride scored four consecutive points before fouling out. Perry connected on a step-back 3-pointer, and then Moeller scored the next 10 points to go on top 50-47 with just under two minutes left to play.
Thunderhawks junior Derek Jackson knocked down a 3-pointer to tie it at 50-50 with 1:36 on the clock.
Mahaffey later hit one of two free throws to put Moeller back on top with 19 seconds remaining.
Julian Mitchell took a pass from Perry and tossed up the final shot from behind the 3-point line in front of the East bench, but it caromed off the rim at the buzzer.
“My opinion is that we dominated the game. We dominated the game for 31 minutes,” Adkins said. “We had a couple costly mistakes down the stretch, but that’s not why you lose the game.”
Mitchell finished with 13 points.
Moeller (18-7) moves on to the district finals against Princeton at 1:30 p.m. at UD Arena on Saturday, March 4.
“We hung in there,” Kremer said. “We hung in there at the end to at least give it a chance. Some guys stepped it up when AJ went out on foul trouble. I’m just super proud of the guys. We’ve lost a lot of close games. That’s what a young team does. Being in this big game, and to be able to turn it around, it speaks a lot about our guys.”
The Thunderhawks graduate seniors Josiah Smith, Kayden Meadows, Mitchell and Powell.
“At the end of the day, I appreciate our guys,” Adkins said. “I appreciate their effort on the floor. This is a brutal way for our seniors to go out on — knowing that this is how you lost. But I can’t thank them enough for being unbelievable young men.”