PHILADELPHIA — With a chance to clinch their first Inter-Ac championship since 2012, Deuce Turner and the Malvern Prep Friars found themselves in an unfamiliar position on Friday night at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy.
Not only was Malvern down in the first half: they were down big. The Blue Devils’ lead at its largest was 15 points, and the home team found themselves up 36-25 at halftime. There was a palpable buzz growing in the gym that the Friars may lose for the first time since Dec. 27, having won 13 straight since that time.
But panic? This team? No chance. In fact, as Turner headed to the locker room staring at an 11-point hole, he looked up at the scoreboard and laughed.
“In the first half, I was talking to (SCH senior center) Dave Robinson, who I played with on Philly Pride,” Turner said. “I was laughing at him. I said, ‘You really think you’re going to win this game?’ He believed in it, but I knew we were going to win this game. We knew they gave us their best shot in the first half, and we were only down 11. We didn’t worry about it at all.”
Turner, the Inter-Ac’s all-time leading scorer and the top scorer in the area at 25.8 points per game, ignited the Friars as he has all season to the tune of 24 points and got big-time assists from juniors Rahdir Hicks and Fran Oschell, who scored 15 apiece and were enormous components of Malvern’s second-half comeback in the eventual 69-64 win.
When the dust finally settled, the Friars emerged just as they had the previous 13 games before it: as winners. Now, they’re champions.
“It means everything,” Turner said of the title. “Of everything I’ve done: 2,000 points, school record, Inter-Ac record…this is my greatest achievement. 2012 isn’t that long ago, but it’s before we got here. We never saw it, so it means a lot for the school. This one’s for Malvern.”
Turner connected on 6 of 11 shots from the field and went 10-for-13 at the foul line, hitting on 9 of 12 from the stripe in the second half as the Friars mounted their rally. However, the team showed as it has all year that they are much more than a one-trick pony. Oschell scored all 15 of his points after halftime and Hicks tallied 10 of his 15 in the second half while playing airtight defense on the SCH guards who had tormented the Friars in the game’s first 16 minutes.
Malvern held the Blue Devils scoreless for a four-minute stretch in the fourth, bulldozing its way through the doorway after SCH left it cracked open just enough to allow the Friars to hang around.
“When we went into the locker room (at halftime), we just had a little heart to heart,” Hicks said. “It was gut check time. We got back to what we do, which is limiting turnovers and playing unselfishly.”
Hicks had a big hand in luring Turner to Malvern, as the two were AAU teammates in middle school. Hicks’ father was the coach of that team, and father and son helped facilitate the introduction that was needed between Turner and head coach John Harmatuk. The Friars had much of what would become Turner’s supporting cast in the pipeline, so they just needed the star to complete the team’s solar system. Once the Coatesville native was on board, it was title or bust for Malvern. The team fell short last season in losing two close games to eventual champion Haverford, but they entered 2019 as overwhelming favorites and never lost sight of the ultimate goal on the horizon.
“It’s a very fulfilling feeling,” Oschell said. “A lot of these guys have been around the program a long time, so for us to finally get that title is really exciting. It’s been our top goal this entire season, to win an Inter-Ac championship. It’s really fulfilling to win it this year, just a weight off our shoulders.”
Oschell, a 6-foot-7 forward, scored most of his points wide open under the basket after Turner and Hicks finally figured out how to penetrate the SCH full court press that had perplexed the Friars in the first half. The big man also got the second half started on a strong note, displaying a smooth touch from deep by burying a three-pointer. Additionally, he helped shut down Robinson, who had 11 rebounds but only managed eight points, most of them early on.
From there, the comeback was on.
“For me, coming in my only goal was to win,” Oschell said. “I don’t have any personal goals as far as points per game or anything like that. I just try to show up and do the best I can to help us win. If that means guarding the biggest guy on the court or making layups down the other end, then that’s what I’m going to try to do. My teammates did a great job beating the press, which led to me getting a lot of open looks down low.”
Hicks was equally as huge on both ends. SCH guards and leading scorer Ke’Shawn Williams and Delonce Hines got theirs, scoring 23 and 14 points, respectively, but they were out of sorts offensively in the second half in large part due to Hicks’ bulldog defensive approach.
“Rahdir gave us energy and really stepped it up defensively in the second half,” Turner said. “He got us all together and told us we had to bring it on defense. We owe it to him for this one, because he carried us and gave us the motivation to push through. We all ride together and decided we didn’t want to wait to win. We wanted to close it out right now.
For all the attention Turner commands, he went out of his way to sing the praises of his teammates. The Bucknell recruit knows his standing in Inter-Ac lore, but he’s also smart enough to know he didn’t get to become a champion by himself.
“Those guys mean everything to me,” he said of his teammates. “I wouldn’t be in this position if they didn’t trust and believe in me, push me every day in practice. We knew coming into this season we were the favorites, but we never stopped pushing each other every day in practice. I don’t say it enough to them, but I want to let them guys know now that they mean everything to me.”
For the Blue Devils (12-10, 5-3), it was a tough pill to swallow. Winning a league title two games back with three to play was always a longshot, but at the same time, SCH had Malvern on the ropes in the first half. They just couldn’t deliver that knockout punch, and the final result stung all the same.
“It’s heartbreaking,” senior captain Jared Sprague-Lott said. “Coming into the season, it was everyone’s goal to win the Inter-Ac, and everybody on the team believed it.”
Added head coach Julian McFadden: “Tip your cap to a team like that. They got down with everyone against them and they came back swinging. Their swing, their punch is a little bigger than a lot of the other ones you’ll take. We went through a tough four-minute stretch where we didn’t score the ball, and against a team like that you’re not going to beat them without scoring with them. You have to play a perfect game, and for those four minutes, we didn’t.”
Now Malvern (20-4, 8-0) will turn its focus to the PAISAA tournament. With one championship in its pocket, this team still wants to win one more before Turner takes his talents to Bucknell.
“It feels great, but we still have two more regular season games left,” Hicks said. “Now that we’re league champs, our goal is to go 10-0, keep pushing our winning streak, get to states and do more damage there.”