ENOLA — Austin Gilbertson, Timmy Edwards and other members of some of the past District 3 champion Trinity Shamrocks occupied seats Saturday night at East Pennsboro High School for the PIAA opener.
The crew, which won four straight titles from 2014-17, acted like coaches from a few rows back, shouting at their former teammates to watch the backdoor, to pass, to make some darn free throws.
But their attempts to help didn’t just start at tip-off against visiting Tacony Academy. The graduates, some of them now playing collegiately, had been preparing the current iteration of the Shamrocks for the PIAA Class 3A first round all week, returning to their old stomping grounds during spring break.
“This past week when we were preparing for this game, a lot of them came back and helped us practice, helped us play against some more experience,” current senior Jack Bucher said. “And they were very helpful giving us tips and just a great other team to play against in practice.”
Bucher and company owe a debt of gratitude, then.
The Shamrocks, despite abysmal free-throw shooting and an inability to convert at the rim more than they’d like, beat Tacony 63-47.
For a team made up of multiple starters without significant PIAA playoff experience, that extra gym time against alumni proved helpful. A sluggish start Saturday didn’t rattle them, neither did poor performances at the charity stripe (18-of-33), nor 16 turnovers.
The Shamrocks (21-5) played with poise in the face of self-inflicted adversity.
Trinity shook off early nerves that saw the Lions take several one-possession leads for the first 10 minutes, using a 12-0 second-quarter run that put the game out of reach. And it played suffocating defense all night. Despite a subpar effort, Trinity was in control for nearly all 32 minutes.
Bucher was the star of the show.
The 6-foot-5 forward finished 8-of-16 from the field, including a monster transition dunk early in the game, to lead all comers with 19 points. Nine of those came off turnovers, including that furious jam, his first in a varsity game. It made his former teammates in attendance take note.
“That was awesome,” he said, cracking his biggest smile in the post-game interview.
Bucher wasn’t done there. He finished second on the team in steals (four) and blocks (seven) and contributed two assists.
“He had an unbelievable game at both ends,” said coach Larry Kostelac Jr., who it was recently announced will be joining the West Shore chapter of the Pennsylvania Hall of Fame.
And he got help.
Sean Good — forehead healed up after taking an elbow to the noggin in the district title game and sporting a fresh hair-do — deposited 14 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, stuffing four shots and dishing out three assists as well. Patrick Walker had 10 points, five rebounds and two assists, and Kalen Veres came off the bench for eight points.
Trinity exploited its size advantage, with Bucher, Good (6-10) and Veres (6-7) forcing the issue inside, especially over the middle two quarters. Good had a pair of slams on the offensive end as teammates routinely beat the Tacony zone with crisp passes.
“As the game went on we were really trying to get it into the middle of the zone,” Bucher said. “We saw a lot of open spots, we got Sean down there, we got Kalen a little bit.”
To be clear, it was not a picturesque night.
Kostelac said the team counted 11 missed layups — too many for his liking. And while the Shamrocks showcased excellent ball movement for large stretches, there were also periods of sloppy play more appropriate for a team playing in early December. And the missed free throws…
But where the ‘Rocks made their hay was on defense.
While the Lions had a few players listed 6-5, they lacked the length across the roster that Trinity has in droves. And without a 3-ball to speak of (1-of-9 on the night), they could not create easy opportunities inside consistently.
Trinity was content to leave off-ball defenders around the paint and force Tacony to take jump shots or try and battle with the bigs. The District 12 six seed (14-12) managed 30 points, by Trinity’s count, in the paint but on 17-of-49 shooting. Trinity forced 20 turnovers.
“Everything we saw was all five guys put the ball on the deck and got to the basket,” Kostelac said of the scouting report.
Trinity’s best stretch came in the third quarter.
Up 29-20 at the break, Bucher hit Good for a throw-down. The pair connected again a minute later when Bucher’s jumper clanked off the rim, only for Good to gobble it up and lay it in.
Mike Scarpelli missed two free throws, the only real blemish in the frame, but made up for it when he found Walker for a trey from the wing.
Bucher added a steal-and-score shortly after, then fed Scarpelli a few possessions later for a lay-in.
Free throws kept Tacony in it during the third quarter, with the lead 44-34. Trinity’s advantage stayed right around 10 points for much of the game until the Lions went into the double bonus late.
“I said, ‘What we need to do is understand what you’re capable of doing, and in that third quarter you demonstrated what you’re capable of doing,’” Kostelac said of his post-game speech. “We cannot wait two quarters for that, we just gotta be better.”
The Shamrocks get another District 12 school, runner-up Dobbins (19-9), in the second round Wednesday. Dobbins beat Southern Columbia 61-50. This is just the second PIAA appearance for Dobbins, which last made the tournament in 2010.
Trinity has now made the second round four straight years and five of the past six. The last team to make the quarterfinals was in 2016, which ended in a 75-67 loss to Mastery Charter North.