Conestoga hands Lower Merion its first loss
Coming into the 2017-18 boys’ basketball campaign, Conestoga head coach Mike Troy tried to temper expectations “We knew we would have to grow during this season,” Troy said, “because our roster doesn’t have as much varsity experience as last year’s team did.” Tuesday evening, the Pioneers (4-1, 3-0) took a step in the right direction with a 62-57 victory against defending Central League champion Lower Merion. The Aces (3-1, 1-1) suffered their first defeat of the season.
“Lower Merion pressures you [defensively] about 100 percent of the time,” said Conestoga junior point guard and co-captain Zach Lezanic. “I tried to keep my cool and make good decisions tonight.”
“Our players made good basketball decisions tonight, screening and executing our offense, which helped negate Lower Merion’s defense,” said Troy. “I thought Zach, Shane [Scott] and Milt [Robinson] all stepped up tonight and made the right decisions. “The biggest key was that we really played as a team. We did a good job on defense. Seeing the kids play as hard as they did tonight [was gratifying]. Lower Merion is a good team, and it was great that we were able to get the win tonight.” Conestoga trailed at halftime, 32-28, but forged ahead at the end of the third quarter, 44-43, and led the rest of the way.
“At halftime, we talked about doing the basics well,” said Troy. “After the game, I told our players to enjoy the win, but be humble. Don’t get too high or too low. There’s a lot of season still to play.”
Scott, who led all Conestoga first-half scorers with 10 points, started the game on fire, scoring the first two baskets (one from outside, another on a drive to the bucket), then Robinson scored underneath to give the host Pioneers a 6-0 lead just 1:29 into the game. Following a Lower Merion timeout, the Aces clawed back into the game, with LM junior guard Darryl Taylor penetrating inside twice to tie the score at 8-8. A defensive rebound by Aces junior Steve Payne was followed by a Jack Forrest 3-pointer to give the visitors an 11-8 lead. In the last three minutes before halftime, it was Forrest’s turn to catch fire. Twice he worked his way inside for baskets, was fouled and made the resulting free throw. Then just before the halftime buzzer, he nailed a trey from near midcourt to give the Aces a 32-28 halftime lead. Forrest finished the night with 22 points.
Lower Merion got its biggest lead of the night, 36-28, early in the third quarter when senior Harrison Klevan hit a trey from the right side. But the Pioneers then went on a 16-6 run to take the lead for good.
“On defense, we played our hearts out, switching coverages well,” said Scott. “And we moved the ball well in the second half — everyone got a touch.” Lezanic sparked a Conestoga charge late in the third quarter. With the Pioneers trailing 40-37, Lezanic scored underneath, then 46 seconds later made a nice feed to senior guard and co-captain Colin McFillin, who scored to give the hosts a 41-40 lead with 2:13 left in the third period. Payne drove inside the put the Aces up 42-41, then Lezanic hit a three-pointer from the right side to give the hosts the lead, 44-42. The Pioneers never trailed thereafter.
Conestoga senior forward and co-captain Charlie Schappell made his presence felt early in the fourth quarter, grabbing rebounds and scoring from inside, as the Pioneers increased their lead to 47-43 with 6:49 left. After both McFillin and Conestoga senior guard and co-captain Michael Erickson scored underneath to give the Pioneers a 51-45 lead with less than five minutes left, Forrest nailed a trey from the top of the key to make it 51-48 with 4:28 to go. McFillin engineered a steal, and fed Scott nicely to make it 53-48, then Robinson converted a free throw to give the hosts a six-point edge.
Soon after, Schappell and McFillin each picked up their fourth foul. With the score 53-51, Lezanic fed Robinson inside, who in turn scored while being fouled, then converted the free throw to give the hosts a 56-51 lead with 1:02 left. Following a Lower Merion miss from inside, Lezanic was fouled and made both free throws to give the hosts a seemingly safe 58-51 lead with 33.5 seconds left.
Or so it seemed. Forrest hit a trey from near midcourt with 19.2 seconds left, then a quick Lower Merion foul was followed by a Conestoga miss on a one-and-one at the free throw line. Aces junior guard Julian Hairston hit a three-pointer from the right side to make it 58-57 with 8.1 seconds left.
A Lower Merion player mistakenly called timeout (the Aces had none left), and a technical foul was called. Lezanic walked to the free throw line and routinely sank both shots to make it 60-57. He finished the night a perfect 6-for-6 from the charity stripe. “When I went to the line for the technical, I just followed the same routine I always follow, during practice, playing in the park, or in my driveway,” said Lezanic.
The Pioneers possessed the ball after the free throws, and Conestoga junior guard Scott Martin was fouled immediately. He dropped in both of his tries and the hosts held a 62-57 lead until the buzzer.
“As soon as the game was over, I thought, ‘This is great, but we’ve got to stay humble,’” Scott said. “We’ll be playing Lower Merion at least one more time this season, maybe two [in the Central League playoffs].” Lower Merion head coach Gregg Downer said, “Our defense isn’t where it needs to be. Conestoga got good man-to-man offense against our [man-to-man] defense, and that technical foul at the end turned a one-point game into a five-point lead. “This is only Game 4 of our season, we have a long way to go, and we’ll be facing Conestoga again [at Lower Merion Feb. 2]. Lower Merion-Conestoga is an intense rivalry.” Lezanic said, “This is a big win for us, something we can build on, but we’ve got to stay humble. We have lots more work to do this season.”
Conestoga 62, Lower Merion 57
LOWER MERION (57): Payne 4 8-10 16, Forrest 8 2-3 22, Hairston 1 0-0 3, Taylor 2 1-2 5, Robinson 0 1-2 1, Klevan 2 0-0 5, Morgan 0 1-2 1, Martin 2 0-2 4, O’Connor 0 0-0 0, Slogoff 0 0-0 0, Totals 19 13-21 57.
CONESTOGA (62): Scott 6 1-2 13, Lezanic 4 6-6 15, Robinson 4 2-3 11, McFillin 2 0-0 4, Martin 1 2-4 5, Schappell 2 1-3 5, Brace 1 0-0 2, Er-ickson 3 0-0 7, Medley 0 0-0 0, Rush 0 0-0 0, Totals 23 12-18 62.
Lower Merion 16 16 11 14 – 57
Conestoga 13 15 16 18 – 62
3-point goals: Lower Merion – Forrest 4, Hairston, Klevan. Cones-toga – Lezanic, Robinson, Martin, Erickson.