WE'RE #1 *Updated
Dear Friends of Lower Merion Basketball, It was as it was meant to be. The sparkling, stunning conclusion to an epic chapter in Lower Merion history. Capping a remarkable playoff run that included wins against undefeated Plymouth Whitemarsh, league rival Springfield (twice), a tough McCaskey squad and longtime nemesis Chester, the Aces shocked Schenley of Pittsburgh 60-58 to win the 2006 AAAA State Championship. The win marks the 6th title in school history, most of any AAAA program in Pennsylvania.
For the 2nd consecutive year, the Aces clawed their way to the State Finals with grit, skill and fearless determination. And for the 2nd straight year, the Aces faced a foe that sportswriters across the State deemed a unanimous favorite.
But Aces Nation was hungry for gold. And the boys in Maroon & White were ready to deliver on Saturday night.
Buoyed by another stellar defensive performance, including two key blocks on Schenley's last possession, the Aces held the Spartans to their 2nd lowest point output of the season. The Aces dictated tempo throughout, using a variety of man/zone combinations to combat Schenley's superior size and strength, and relying on a spread offense and steady ball control en route to a gritty, thrilling victory.
Lower Merion weathered a 9-0 Schenley run to start the game by staying true to playoff form -- earning key stops, hitting open threes and executing the fast break to come back from a deficit. By the beginning of the 2nd quarter, the Aces had built a five point lead and had effectively neutralized Schenley's 6-8 center and Big East recruit DeJuan Blair and explosive 6-5 wingman DJ Kennedy. Ryan Brooks (22 points, 8 rebounds, 4 blocks) once again led the offensive charge, attacking the basket with a brilliant array of aerial maneuvers, including a difficult left-handed finish in transition between two Schenley defenders.
Late in the 2nd, however, just as the Aces appeared to be gaining control of the game, Brooks picked up his third foul and Williamson drew his 2nd. For the first time in the playoffs, the dynamic duo would go into halftime with foul trouble, a troubling prospect in a game of such magnitude. Schenley used the turn of fortune to go on a 10-6 mini-run to close the quarter and take a 26-22 halftime lead.
Back in the locker room, Coach Downer removed his loafers and changed into a pair of sneakers. His message to the team: he wanted to have comfortable footwear for the Aces celebratory post-game dance. Ten years earlier, he'd pulled the same move during the Aces' title game against Erie Cathedral Prep and the team went on to win. For history to repeat itself, it would take an incredible effort by the Aces in the 2nd half. The team was more than willing to oblige.
Late in the third quarter, faced with their largest deficit since the opening minutes, the Aces exploded on a dramatic, defining run that will be part of Aces Nation lore forever. Down 41-33 with 1:43 to go in the period, the team set-up the same full-court "diamond" press that had triggered a 13 point comeback against Chester in the Semifinals. And once again, the "diamond" sparkled. Three steals, three treys (one by Williamson, two by Brooks) and twenty-nine seconds later, the Aces had gone from eight down to one up.
Game after game, time and time again, this team had proved that it would never say die. And now, the "aces refuse to lose" attitude that has come to define Aces Nation was on display for all of Pennsylvania to see. Silver medals were not an option. This was our time.
Ryan and Garrett began to drive to the basket at will, drawing fouls and gaining bonus free-throws. Williamson (14 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists, 5 blocks) energized the crowd with a soaring two-handed jam on one drive, skying over two Schenley defenders. With the defense sagging, freshman Greg Robbins (13 points, 7 rebounds, 3-3 3 pt., 4 blocks), who played a huge role on both ends of the floor, let it rain from the perimeter and gathered key rebounds. Pete Lucas knocked down another clutch playoff three, part of a 17-2 run that gave the Aces a 7 point lead with just six minutes to play.
And then Ryan and Garrett picked up their fourth fouls. And once again, Schenley pounced, coming back to take a one point lead with just over a minute to play. But the Aces would hold on for victory. Eric Barefield, who played a masterful floor game (7 points, 5 assists, 3-4 free throws), converted a tough layup - Williamson and Lucas made key free-throws and the Aces got stops down the stretch.
None was more important than the last.
With 9.6 seconds to play and down two, Schenley had a chance to tie or win in regulation. A runner by Deondre Kane was altered by Brooks and the ball bounced to the floor. Kennedy retrieved it and tried a put back, and this time it was Robbins who re-directed the shot out of bounds as time expired.
Frenzied jubilation ensued as the players and coaches rushed the court and raced over to the Lower Merion student section to greet their adoring fans. Members of the '96 team who were at the game, including Jermaine Griffin, Rob Schwartz and Cary Walker joined the celebration, accompanying seniors from last year's magical squad, including Dan Capkin, Sam Stabert and Sal Cucionotti in a dance of brotherhood and shared glory. Coach Downer made full use of his comfortable shoes, hurtling at full speed across the court and leaping into the arms of Pete Lucas with fists raised in the air. The chants of "Aces Nation!" cascaded down from the crowd of more than 3,500 Aces fans who had made the trek to Hershey.
The players, with hands raised in the air and wrists taped with the message "WTF" (Walk together forever), thrust their gold medals and championship trophy skyward. History, forever. And one incredible, indelible moment for Aces Nation.
LM: Pete Lucas 4, Ryan Brooks 22, Garrett Williamson 14, Greg Robbins 13, Eric Barefield 7
S: Deandre Kane 15, Jamal Bryant 1, Greg Blair 5, Gerald Brooks 12, D.J. Kennedy 10, DeJuan Blair 15.
Come Celebrate at the PARADE!
The team will be honored publicly for the first time at tonight's (Monday) School Board meeting. A reception will begin at 7:30 PM in the LMHS library - all are invited. Come cheer on the team one last time at a VICTORY PARADE to be held this Sunday (4/2) at 1 PM as the boys travel from Suburban Square to Arnold Field for a community-wide celebration of their amazing achievement! More details to come...
Championship Gear, etc.
T-shirts and other gear commemorating this incredible team will be available in the coming days. Check the website for updates.
The best fans, the best basketball family in the world. Thanks for making this such a special season for everyone! Now, it's time to celebrate!!!!