Eastern boys basketball starts season fast after taking Viking Holiday Tournament title

Following a season opening loss to Camden Catholic, Eastern rolled off four consecutive wins to end the 2017 calendar year on a high note.

Eastern Regional High School boys basketball finished off the 2017 calendar year with four consecutive wins, but it wasn’t easy.

The host Vikings won the Eastern Viking Holiday Tournament over winter break, defeating Sterling High School on Dec. 27 and then Moorestown High School in the tournament’s championship game on Dec. 28. Eastern had to overcome a big obstacle on Dec. 28, however, after the Vikings blew a 20-point halftime lead. Eastern rallied late in the fourth quarter and won the game, 64–63, after junior Ryan Ems sank a game-winning shot at the buzzer.

Head coach Kevin Crawford was happy his team won four straight games early in the 2017–18 season, but realizes they can also improve a lot.

“This would not have been a good loss,” Crawford said about the Dec. 28 game. “An ugly win is definitely better. But I see a lot of areas where we can definitely improve on.”

Crawford was happy with how his team rebounded after blowing the large lead against Moorestown and winning the game. In the Vikings’ season opener, Eastern led a strong Camden Catholic High School team by four points entering the fourth quarter. However, Camden Catholic outscored Eastern, 18–12, in the final quarter to defeat the Vikings, 50–48.

After the season opening loss, Eastern went on a roll, blowing out Bishop Eustace Preparatory School, 70–51, and defeating Cherry Hill High School East, 56–45. Both wins came on the road leading into Eastern’s holiday tournament.

“Starting with Bishop Eustace, we came out with a ton of energy,” Ems said. “We took it to them in their gym. We had a couple guys get hot and we also have a deep bench. I’m really proud of the defense we’re playing and that we’re getting the ball in the hole.”

Strong defense is a hallmark for the Vikings, who have a number of strong, tall forwards, including Ems and senior Onye Okoro. Crawford has seen periods where Eastern’s defense has shut down the opposition. However, he also believes the team can improve in a few spots.

“We have to slide our feet on defense and box out a little bit better,” Crawford said.

Offensively, Eastern has multiple players who can score, including seniors Tory Edwards and Jesse Barbera. Ems and Okoro have also stepped up offensively this year. Okoro tallied 12 or more points in Eastern’s first four games of the season. Ems missed a few early season games for the Vikings due to a hamstring injury, but scored 10 points against Camden Catholic and was Eastern’s leading scorer with 19 points in the win over Moorestown.

“Ryan has been working through a hamstring injury,” Crawford said. “He’s been battling and battling. He doesn’t look himself to me just yet because he’s missed so much time. But he will eventually realize his potential.”

Crawford believes Eastern’s experiences with close games early in the year have allowed his team to learn how to play good situational basketball. He feels the experience will pay off during big games later in the year.

“This will be good for our kids down the stretch this season,” Crawford said.

Ems is happy with the momentum the Vikings have built with the bulk of the team’s Olympic Conference schedule coming up in January.

“We’re getting our wins back,” he said. “After starting off with a loss against Camden Catholic, getting four wins in a row was huge.”