For a time, the Hawks played the kind of game they wanted. Then everything began to slowly unravel and the Chester grip got tighter, forging ahead to a 62-53 victory Tuesday night in the PIAA Class AAAA state semifinals at Coatesville High School.
The defeat ended a very successful season for Prep, which finished 24-6, while Chester won its 78th straight game against a Pennsylvania opponent in improving to 28-3 overall this season. The Clippers will advance for an unprecedented third straight state championship Saturday at Hersheypark Arena against Lower Merion, in a rematch of last year's state Class AAAA state final.
In the 5 years the Catholic League has competed in the PIAA, this season marked the furthest any Prep team ever advanced in the state playoffs. The Hawks became only the second District 12 Class AAAA team to reach the state semifinals (the other was Simon Gratz, which also lost to Chester, in 2007).
In Chester, legendary Prep coach Speedy Morris already knew what he was up against. Morris had scouted Chester for some time, looking to exploit any small weakness he could glean. He needed a strong microscope, because there aren't many.
Entering the semifinals, Prep had played outstanding defense in its three state playoffs victories, holding opponents to an average of 43.6 points a game, while scoring an average of 62.3.
Against Chester, the Hawks stayed close, though couldn't quite find the extra gear to pull ahead. In fact, it's the first time Chester beat an in-state opponent by fewer than 10 points in its last 20 games, since the Clippers narrowly got by Imhotep Charter, 63-61, in December.
"We didn't make the kind of shots we needed, but we did control the tempo to stay in the game, but we got a little crazy there in the end," Morris said. "Chester plays aggressive, and we turned the ball over a few times. You can't do that against them. They're like piranha; they smell blood. We had 11 turnovers, and we averaged nine a game during the season. Chester is a good team, but I thought we could play with them."
Notre Dame-bound Steve Vasturia finished with a game-high 19 points and played exceptionally well against Chester's Rondae Jefferson, who scored 18 and had his hands full defending Vasturia.
"They all could shoot; it was hard to guard them and we knew we had to limit Steve from not getting 30," said Jefferson, who's headed to Arizona. "We actually did play at their pace. Their matchup zone was probably the best we saw all year, and that kind of slowed us up on offense."
Prep got within 47-40 on a Miles Overton free throw with a little less than 3 minutes to play, but Chester milked some clock and Jefferson hit four free throws in the last 2 minutes to keep the Hawks at a comfortable distance.
It was a tough game for Vasturia. He did everything he could possibly do - and performed as advertised. As the Hawks got deeper into the state playoffs, playing some of the best teams in Southeastern Pennsylvania, Vasturia's game kept rising.
He leaves school as arguably the greatest player in Prep history.
"This isn't easy; no one wants to end their high school career with a loss," Vasturia said. "We made some mistakes, and that's what Chester likes to do; they amp up the pressure a little bit and made some turnovers. It was a fun 4 years, and I would have liked to go out winning a state title. This was a lot of fun. I loved everyone and the coaches on this team. They're the best. I'll miss it."