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Frantic game ends with Rancocas Valley boys beating Highland

The pace was fast and furious, two teams racing end to end on the shiny hardwood, forcing the issue on defense and attacking the basket on offense.

The pace was fast and furious, two teams racing end to end on the shiny hardwood, forcing the issue on defense and attacking the basket on offense.

So there was something extra special about the way Rancocas Valley put the finishing touches on a remarkable rally for victory over Highland on Friday night.

Using a frantic, full-court press, the Red Devils surged all the way back from a 17-point deficit in the first half then found a second wind and overcame another seven-point deficit in the second half.

But in the the crucial final moments, Rancocas Valley played it cool, making nine of 10 free throws in the last 68 seconds to emerge with a 79-73 victory in a speeding bullet of a non-league clash of Top 25 teams.

"Nine for 10. That was probably the most impressive thing of the night for us," Rancocas Valley coach Jay Flanagan said of the free throws.

Sophomore guard Jayvon Laster scored 23 of his 26 points in the second half, and junior guard Kadian Dawkins added 16 points for Rancocas Valley (2-1), the No. 15 team in the Inquirer Top 25.

Junior swingman Dante Masino scored 22, junior guard Zafir Brower scored 18, and junior forward Damola Dario added 17 points with four steals for No. 25 Highland (2-1).

"Hopefully, we'll learn a lesson from this," Highland coach Joe Lewis said. "This is why I scheduled tough games like this, to get us ready for the state tournament."

Much of the game was a showcase for Highland to underscore its emergence as a strong program with a unique style of play: The Tartans use a three-quarter-court press on almost every possession, double-team in almost every situation and launch three-pointers with abandon at the offensive end.

"It's a fun style, and our kids are getting better and better at it," Lewis said. "They're still learning how to play this style. But it's going to take some time."

Highland's pressure defense created major problems for Rancocas Valley in the first half, especially with the springy 6-foot-5 Dario using his wingspan and quickness to disrupt the Red Devils.

"That No. 1 [Dario] at the top of the press, he made us change the way we do things," Flanagan said. "We teach our kids to back pass. We couldn't back pass against him."

With Brower scoring 13 in the first half and Dario 10, Highland built the lead as large as 37-20 and took a 39-28 advantage into the locker room at the break.

But there was a price to pay for the Tartans' aggressive play: Brower and Dario both picked up three fouls in the first half, and Brower fouled out with 4 minutes, 55 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.

"We have to be smarter," Lewis said. "That's part of the learning process."

Rancocas Valley rallied behind pressure defense of its own as the Red Devils used their depth and athleticism to gradually seize command of the game.

"The first half their pressure killed us, and in the second half it was reversed," Flanagan said.

Rancocas Valley took its first lead at 46-45 on Dawkins' put-back, but Highland responded with eight straight points - six on steals and layups by Masino.

"Dante never stops," Lewis said.

But the Red Devils had the momentum, and they rallied again behind Dawkins and Laster, who scored 12 in the third quarter and 11 in the fourth.

Laster was 4 for 4 in free throws in the final 49 seconds as the Red Devils kept stepping to line and calmly closing out a furious comeback.

"I was super-nervous at the line," Laster said. "I was scared. But I told myself I had to make them."

Highland 23 16 19 15 - 73

Rancocas Valley 18 10 23 28 - 79

H: Gabe Villegas 4, Zafir Brower 18, Dave Gormley 8, Dante Masino 22, Damola Dario 17, David Cooper 4.

RC: Kanayo Akosa 6, Asa Daniels 9, Kadian Dawkins 16, Jayvon Laster 26, Iverson Clement 4, Kyle Lundy 3, Darnell St. Clair 7, Curtis Bright 2, Naair Campbell 6.