Lower Merion >> Lower Merion clinched its ninth consecutive PIAA Class 6A playoff berth – the longest current streak in District 1 6A boys’ basketball – with a 65-56 win against visiting Conestoga Tuesday evening in the second round of the District 1 6A tournament.
It was a hard-earned victory, thanks to a persistent Pioneers squad.
While Lower Merion led for nearly the entire game, the Pioneers hung tough with some potent 3-point shooting, and the visitors trailed by only three points (57-54) with two minutes left.
“We know Conestoga is going to hit shots, they’re big-time players,” said Lower Merion senior guard Jack Forrest, who scored 22 points. “We just had to get some stops, and down the stretch, we got some needed buckets and sunk our free throws, which was really important. Conestoga is a great team, this is the third time we’ve played them this year [all LM wins], and every game has been close, every game has been a battle, and we’re just lucky we got this one.”
Aces head coach Gregg Downer was asked what his first reaction was when the final buzzer sounded at the Kobe Bryant Gymnasium.
“Relief,” said Downer, with a laugh. “It was a very tight game until we came up with a few more plays down the stretch. Just another good Stoga-Aces game.”
In the spirited Lower Merion locker room following the game, Aces senior guard Steve Payne talked about the meaning of another state bid.
“This is a great feeling, it’s so surreal,” said Payne, who scored 13 points, eight of them in the fourth quarter. “This is the best part of the season, it’s really exciting to know that we’re headed to States again.”
The Aces (22-2), seeded third in District 1 6A, will now face No. 6 seed Chester in the quarterfinals Feb. 22. Conestoga, the 14th seed, will travel to No. 11 seed Plymouth Whitemarsh in the playback round Feb. 22.
Lower Merion, coming off a 63-31 win against Penncrest in the Central League tournament championship final, started Tuesday’s game red-hot, and when Forrest hit his second trey midway through the first quarter, the Aces led, 14-4.
But Conestoga, which defeated Pennsbury 58-56 in overtime to advance to the second round of districts, battled back. Milton Robinson, who hit the game-winning shot against Pennsbury, nailed a couple of 3s to cut Lower Merion’s lead to 22-17 by the end of the first quarter.
Two minutes into the second quarter, Robinson hit another trey from the right corner to give the Pioneers their first – and only – lead of the game, 25-24. Robinson finished the first half with 16 points.
Forrest continued to shoulder the scoring load for Lower Merion in the first half, and finished the half with 15 points as the Aces led, 37-30. Forrest combined with senior center Josh Martin and senior guard Darryl Taylor to go 10-for-10 from the free throw line in the second quarter. For the game, Lower Merion was 19-for-20 from the foul line.
In the third quarter, the Aces’ shooting cooled off, except for a couple of Martin field goals underneath late in the period, and Lower Merion clung to a 45-40 lead at the end of the period.
Martin also came up with some key rebounds down the stretch, as both he and Payne grabbed five boards, while Forrest and senior guard Theo Henry pulled down a six rebounds each to help stem Conestoga’s attack.
Early in the fourth quarter, following a Conestoga turnover, Lower Merion senior guard Matt O’Connor hit a trey from the right corner to give the Aces a 48-40 lead. A few minutes later, Payne deftly drove inside heavy traffic for a layup and a 52-42 lead.
“We had some trouble hitting shots in the third quarter, but we rallied in the fourth quarter, came out with energy,” said Forrest, who combined with Payne for 13 of Lower Merion’s 20 fourth-quarter points. “We had to finish it out with some of our guys, and we know that Steve is a great, great rim attacker. And later he got to the free throw line and made some big, big shots.”
Payne said, “In the fourth quarter, we slowed the ball down, we make some good shot selections, and we didn’t rush anything. And we came up with some big defensive rebounds at the end.”
But Conestoga wouldn’t quit. Senior guard Scott Martin nailed a trey from the corner, then following a Lower Merion miss from underneath, Conestoga senior guard Zach Lezanic hit two free throws to make it 52-47.
Forrest and Conestoga senior guard Shane Scott traded treys, then a Forrest drive inside was followed by a reverse layup from Conestoga’s Evan Medley. Following a Lower Merion missed shot from outside, Martin drove in for a layup and it was 57-54 with two minutes left.
Two free throws by Payne, then a putback by Medley on a tap-in made it 59-56, ending Conestoga’s scoring for the night.
Payne hit a field goal from the top of the key, then following a Conestoga turnover, Payne was fouled and made both ends of a 1-and-1 with 42.8 seconds left to give the hosts a 63-56 lead.
A Conestoga outside shot was wide, and Henry, who got the ball, was fouled, converting a 1-and-1 with 33.8 seconds left to complete the scoring at 65-56.
Forrest and Payne combined with Josh Martin and Darryl Taylor for 54 of the Aces’ 65 points.
“I thought Theo Henry had a good floor general ballgame and some big rebounds,” Downer said.
Conestoga head coach Mike Troy said, “We didn’t execute our offense as much as we wanted to in the fourth quarter. And that’s on us – credit to Lower Merion, they played a nice game. Defensively, we tried to shut different people down. We needed to improve our defense in the first half; in the second half, I thought our defense was pretty good, including when they went four corners. I though our kids played really, really hard; one of the hardest we’ve played all year – I just think we needed to play a little smarter.”
Lower Merion 65, Conestoga 56
Conestoga 17 13 10 16 – 56
Lower Merion 22 15 8 20 – 65
Conestoga (56): Scott 5 0-2 12, Martin 1 0-0 3, Robinson 6 0-0 16, Rush 2 0-0 4, Lezanic 2 5-7 10, Medley 3 0-0 6, Steele 1 0-0 3, Brace 1 0-1 2, Totals 21 5-10 56.
Lower Merion (65): Payne 4 5-5 13, Forrest 7 5-5 22, Taylor 3 2-2 9, O’Connor 2 0-0 6, Henry 1 3-4 5, Martin 3 4-4 10, Totals 20 19-20 65.
Three-point field goals: Conestoga – Scott 2, Martin, Robinson 4, Steele Lezanic LM – Forrest 3, Taylor, O’Connor 2,