The Phillipsburg boys basketball team of last year may not have come out on top of Thursday night’s game.
The one that took the court on the first night of the Stellar Catch a Rising Star Tournament did.
The Stateliners trailed early but put together a late run to fend off Saucon Valley67-62 on a steamy night at Cedar Beach Park.
“We would have lost a game like that last year, easily” second-year coach Eric Jacobs said. “... Now, when the games are tight, we don’t fall into a hole. We fight our way out of it.”
Phillipsburg advanced to the Friday’s second round where it will play Bonner Prendergast at 8 p.m.
Rising junior Chris Mann led the Stateliners with 23 points while junior Jayshawn Grant (13), sophomore Richie Manigault (11) and senior Dave Yale (11) all chipped in key efforts.
“It feels great to get a win in Stellar, because this is such a huge tournament,” Mann said. “It’s been a big (difference this year). Last year wasn’t very good, but we’re going to have a solid year this year. ... We have so many offensive weapons, it’s hard to guard us.”
The 6-foot-5 guard-forward had a breakout campaign last year as a sophomore. He won’t be flying under anyone’s radar anymore this year, as he drew plenty of defense from the Panthers, but he’s still finding ways to come up big.
“Chris is just such a terrific player,” Jacobs said. “He works so hard on his game. He can hurt you in so many different ways. He’s a 6-5 lefty and he can score inside and out. He’s going to be a tough guard for any team. He’s learning how to be a little more patient, let the game come to him, find his teammates. He can go off for a lot of points, but he’s just realizing what it takes to become a complete player. That’s been a really big difference.”
Saucon Valley took a 35-32 lead at halftime and kept it for the opening minutes of the second half. Jake Nichols scored 16 of his team-high 18 points in the second half while Cam Allen added 15 and Will Smith had 12.
But after going on a 12-3 run to seize the lead and push it to 55-47, Phillipsburg held on from there.
Manigault drained a pair of clutch threes in the game’s final minutes, while he and Mann each added blocks on final-minute possessions when the Panthers had a chance to tie it.
“We really battled it out,” Manigault said. “It was a tough win, it didn’t come easy. We’ve definitely gotten stronger, quicker and we’re developing better habits.”
The two teams squared off just two weeks ago at DeSales, in a nearly identical game, with the Stateliners pulling out a double-overtime win. The Panthers, though, were missing a few key pieces, Jacobs said.
They were there on Thursday night, and while Saucon Valley started off hot from downtown again, the Stateliners stayed right there with them.
“Our kids were just so resilient tonight,” Jacobs said. “I was so proud of how they kept fighting, kept battling. They could have put their heads down and went into a funk, but they didn’t. That’s really the difference with these kids this year: growing up a little, becoming a little more mature, handling adversity better and making big plays when we need them.”
P’burg was without senior big man Zach Troxell Thursday night, but the team returns its entire starting lineup from last year’s 9-16 season that included its first-ever Easton Rotary Holiday Classic championship.
The Stateliners are hoping to carry the chemistry into this season with a summer of growth under their belt.
“Our expectations are so much different,” Jacobs said. “Last year was my first year and i kind of brought a different culture and style of basketball to the program. Everything was new last year. We were playing freshmen and sophomores, so we knew we were going to struggle; the league was very strong.
“But we knew that was going to pay off now. We played really well in the summer league and it’s great to get a win tonight. I can just see the kids are really growing and becoming what they’re going to be. We’re not there yet — we’re going to keep going — but definitely better.”
Greg Joyce may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GJoyce9. Find Lehigh Valley high school sports on Facebook.