As Jake Milligan anxiously watched from the bleachers Saturday night at Reading High’s Geigle Complex, he noticed something about his younger brother.
Incredibly perceptive — a trait that helped Jake average 9.0 points per game his senior season (2014-15) at Carlisle — the 20-year-old Saint Joseph’s University sophomore turned to his father, Greg, and noted 17-year-old senior Ben Milligan was carrying himself with an incredible sense of tranquility.
That was despite the heightened agitation of the moment, with Carlisle trailing Emmaus by as many as 11 points in the fourth quarter of the PIAA Class 6A quarterfinals.
“This is the biggest game of Ben’s life, and he’s totally calm,” Jake remembers saying to his dad. “The atmosphere did not get to him.”
Mom Teri, step-mom Carol and others in the stands wondered aloud how the smallish Ben Milligan — all 5-foot-9 of him — wasn’t a bundle of nerves.
And this was before The Shot even left his hands.
Andre Anderson’s Thundering Herd (21-8) rapidly ate into that double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter, and Milligan popped off the bench near the end of regulation to first drill a 3-pointer that pulled his team within one point with 15 seconds left.
Then, with Carlisle down three points as the final seconds ticked away, Deshawn Millington never hesitated to dish to an open Milligan yet again.
That 3-point splash will live on for decades in Carlisle lore, as it forced overtime in what would eventually become a 78-74 double-OT victory that pushed the Herd into the state semifinals for the first time since the program won a fourth straight PIAA title in 1988.
“I know when he’s wide open, he’s guaranteed to make the shot,” said Millington, the Herd’s star who totaled 16 points, nine rebounds and 11 assists against Emmaus.
Ben Milligan, so often overlooked as spotlights have shone at various times on teammates Millington, Ethan Houston, Nate Barnes, Gavyn Barnes and others, was undoubtedly the star.
“When you’re shooting in your driveway, counting down in your head, that’s the shot you make,” Milligan said from study hall Monday afternoon. “I can’t believe it happened.
“People have been coming up to me all day saying stuff. Even had a few people bow down to me when I’ve walked past them. It’s kinda cool, but it’s kinda weird at the same time. I’m not used to this kind of attention.”
The gym rat
It was nearly a decade ago when Jake and Ben moved with Greg and Carol from Lancaster County to Carlisle a few years after their parents’ divorce. Otherwise, Ben Milligan might have been helping Hempfield’s basketball team, which was just eliminated in the PIAA Class 6A quarterfinals.
Instead, the boys quickly learned about Carlisle’s rich hoops history, and basketball was their sport of choice.
“It was the No. 1 thing in my life,” Ben said.
The driveway battles between the brothers soon developed into intense squabbles.
“It always ended in some kind of argument,” Greg Milligan said.
And while the two developed a lifelong bond through competition, Jake and Ben also built a reputation for their hard work.
Ben dressed varsity as a sophomore when Jake was a senior, though he was always “Jake’s little brother.”
“I remember him watching me start to get some recognition,” Jake said of Ben, who would often serve as Jake’s rebounder when he would go to the gym for extra work on his jumper.
“For me, as a kid who came off the bench in middle school, I loved seeing my name in the paper and ended up as a captain (senior year). That gritty, hard-work aspect, being in the gym when other people aren’t, I tried to teach that (to Ben).”
Last year, with Jake off to college, Ben worked his way into the starting lineup for the first half of the season, but eventually he lost his spot. And then he barely played during Carlisle’s run to the PIAA quarterfinals.
Jake has conflicted memories from watching the sensational district playoff battle against Lonnie Walker IV and Reading last season, citing the ferocity and prize-fight exchanges from the two powerhouse programs, but also feeling bad because Ben didn’t play.
“I was worried that going into this year, he was going to press and try too hard to perform,” Jake said. “Sometimes when you press, it makes it worse.”
And maybe Jake was right, because he recalls Ben struggling with confidence and failing to assert himself during summer league season.
Which provoked another driveway clash.
As Jake remembers it, he led younger brother maybe 20-14 — games were to 50 by ones and twos — when one of them said something that ignited a fiery exchange.
Ben was angry at Jake, and that fueled an 18-point run against his older brother en route to a 50-41 triumph.
“Yeah, I remember that,” Ben said. “He used to get under my skin really easily, but not so much after that.”
Jake reacted to the loss by slamming the basketball onto the ground, the usually calm and stone-faced older brother then raising his voice toward Ben:
“I said, ‘Why don’t you play like that in summer league?’” Jake remembers. “I was so tired of watching Ben go through what I did my junior year. I said, ‘You worked your tail off. You deserve to be on the stage!’”
Into senior year
Ben Milligan now confidently insists he wins most of the one-on-one battles against Jake — big brother calls those “alternative facts” — but, more importantly, he soon possessed some swagger to go with his tireless defensive work, his jump shot, and every other physical aspect of his game.
Andre Anderson calls Ben one of the team’s vocal leaders, which isn’t an easy role to fill on a roster with eight seniors and star-power galore.
“He’s another coach on the court,” Anderson said. “Not a better kid. Not a better person.”
And while Millington, Houston and the Barnes cousins have taken turns in the limelight, Milligan patiently waited his turn, riding the family-tested formula that it’s always team above the individual.
“Ben and our family have always been about the team and didn’t care about the recognition,” Jake said, “but I always thought it would have been neat for Ben to be the guy.”
Arguably his best game this season — until Saturday, anyway — came against rival Harrisburg in the District 3 quarterfinals, when Milligan knocked down five 3-pointers for a career-high 15 points. However, the Herd lost that game on a last-second bucket.
As it turns out, the moment wasn’t yet big enough for Ben. He needed an even larger stage. And what better place than the legendary Geigle Complex, the “Castle on the Hill?”
“The whole team this season, it seems when one guy’s down, somebody else steps up,” said Greg Milligan, who played soccer, baseball and basketball at Octorara High School. “It was his turn to do that.”
So Ben, who’s averaging 5.3 points per game with a team-high 41 3-pointers this season, netted 12 crucial points against Emmaus. And, on his grandmother Pat’s birthday, he cemented himself into Carlisle history with one buzzer-beating flick of the wrist.
Jake and the rest of the family beamed from the stands, as did the entire team around him on the court. Did anybody catch Nate Barnes rushing to Ben to embrace him after overtime was assured?
And big brother couldn’t wait for his own hug afterward, sneaking in toward the locker room and catching Ben on his way out to meet a growing group of admirers.
“Ben is my guy. I’m just really happy for him,” said Jake, who plans to skip class Tuesday at St. Joe’s and drive with fellow Philly-based Herd alums Jordan Purcell, David Erfle and Erin Faller to Altoona for Carlisle’s semifinal clash with Pine-Richland.
“This is the best team Carlisle has had in years, and to say I’m the brother of the kid who hit that shot is awesome.
“Now I’m Ben’s big brother.”