Allen vs Lovejoy

Lovejoy junior Karson Templin, left, defends a shot at the rim by Allen junior Femi Olaniyan during Friday’s non-district ballgame. The Leopards topped the Eagles, 71-52.

ALLEN — Despite their high schools being separated by just a few miles, it wasn’t until Friday that the Allen and Lovejoy boys basketball teams at long last squared off on the hardwood. The Leopards left quite the first impression.

A nip-and-tuck first three quarters gave way to an eight-minute flurry by visiting Lovejoy. The Leopards outscored Allen 25-8 in the fourth quarter and continued their once-beaten start to the 2021 season behind a 71-52 road win over the Eagles, ranked No. 22 in Class 6A by the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches. Unranked, Lovejoy bumped its record to 15-1 on the year.

“We’ve got some veteran guys who have played in some big games before,” said Kyle Herrema, Leopards head coach. “What we’re doing in practice is showing up in the games right now. They’re confident in what they’re doing, and to come out of here with a win at their place, this is a big one for us.”

Holding just a 46-44 lead through three quarters, Lovejoy rocked Allen with a 12-2 run to begin the fourth. Senior Jax Thompson lobbed up an alley-oop out of a half-court set for junior Karson Templin, and the Leopards were off and running.

Templin returned the favor by assisting Thompson on a 3-pointer the next time down the floor, and senior Taiden Conner then took charge on both ends of the court. He finished a layup off an Allen turnover and then, moments later, stole the ball and sunk a 3-pointer in transition for a 58-46 advantage that took less than two minutes to materialize. 

Conner scored 12 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter — his back-to-back buckets silenced an otherwise energetic Allen crowd while sending the Lovejoy bench into a frenzy as Eagles head coach Clark Cipoletta called timeout.

“[Conner is] just 5-foot-7 but such a special kid,” Herrema said. “His mom is stationed overseas in Kuwait. He’s small but mighty. They feed off of him and he’s one of the leaders of our program. That was a huge shot — it was definitely a ‘no, no, no, yes’ kind of shot.”

Baskets by senior Miles Gibson and sophomore Malachi Drake helped will Allen back to within seven points, 58-51, before Lovejoy again shifted gears and closed the game on a 13-1 run. The Leopards did well to get in the bonus with just 1:01 left in the third quarter and capitalized — the team shot 17-of-20 on free throws in the second half versus just 1-of-4 for Allen. The Eagles were held to just three made field goals in the fourth quarter.

“We just couldn’t finish shots in the fourth,” Cipoletta said. “I thought we tried to rush a little bit after they went on a bit of a run and tried to get it all back in one play. We just got impatient.”

A blowout didn’t appear to be in the forecast as Friday’s game progressed — not after a third quarter that produced eight lead changes between Allen and Lovejoy. A 31-28 halftime edge by the Leopards dissipated as Allen went on an 8-3 run to take a 40-38 lead. Gibson, who led Allen with 18 points, scored seven in the third and grabbed six offensive rebounds overall.

“We just got back to our principles,” Cipoletta said. “We were getting stops on defense, getting out and running in transition for some easy buckets. Once we got that going, it was good, but we weren’t able to keep that up later.”

The plight of defending a versatile Lovejoy offense took its toll. The Leopards had four players finish in double figures in Friday’s win, led by 19 points from Thompson, 17 from senior Pete Peabody, 15 from Conner and 13 from Templin.

“What’s special about this group is the work,” Herrema said. “There’s never a bad day in practice. They move the ball so well and are very unselfish. It’s hard to guard us because we’ve got a lot of perimeter shooters and we can also throw the ball inside to a couple guys. It’s a fun team.”

The Leopards and Eagles rained six 3-pointers apiece in the contest, including a combined six during a back-and-forth first quarter that finished in a 17-17 draw. Allen junior Dylan Archey sunk two from long range en route to 12 points on the night, but Thompson and Peabody matched that initial firepower for Lovejoy.

The Eagles leaned on a steady perimeter game early, otherwise taking its chances attacking the basket and trying to finish over Templin. The 6-foot-7 post blocked four shots in the win and altered several others, including a block on a dunk attempt by Allen junior Femi Olaniyan (13 points) in the second quarter.

“[Templin] has got to be one of the best defenders in the state,” Herrema said. “Not only is he long, he’s fierce. He wants to be an incredible defender and anchors us everyday. It allows us to put a lot of pressure on the perimeter because if you go to the rim, you’re facing him and that’s pretty formidable.”

That sequence drew a raucous cheer from the Lovejoy crowd as part of an energetic atmosphere in the first-ever meeting in boys basketball between the two programs. Both fanbases filled up the lower bowl of Allen’s gymnasium and made their presences felt — Lovejoy senior Omari Murdock, an all-district receiver on the Leopards’ football team who played his junior year at Allen, was given a less-than-ceremonial welcome by the Eagles’ student section upon checking into the game, and the Lovejoy students responded in kind as their team blew open Friday’s contest in the fourth quarter.

“In our middle school district, Willow Springs plays Curtis, Ford and Ereckson,” Herrema said. “These guys have played each other before in middle school and ASA, so this one was pretty big for our kids.”

The loss marked Allen’s third in its last four games, a slight downturn from the team’s 11-3 start in their first season under Cipoletta. The Eagles look to right the ship in time for the start of district play, opening at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday at home against Little Elm.

“This is our crossroads. We know there’s going to be adversity and hopefully we’ll respond,” Cipoletta said. “We don’t want these losses to determine the outlook of the season. We’re trying to learn from the mistakes, get better in those areas and not repeat those same mistakes when it matters.”

Lovejoy, meanwhile, looks to stay hot when it begins district play in 10-5A — the Leopards open their conference schedule at 3 p.m. Tuesday at Princeton.

For continued news and coverage on the local sports scene, follow Matt Welch on Twitter.

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