By Danny Kane
It is never easy to beat a team three times, especially a fired-up league rival seeking the ultimate redemption. But the Upper Darby Royals – at 23-1 and undefeated Central League champs – had to be feeling confident about their prospects on Tuesday night after thrashing the Aces by 15 points just a month ago. With three of the best players in the area and a high-octane perimeter game, Upper Darby entered district play with the #4 seed and a well-deserved reputation as a state contender.
Thankfully, games aren’t won on reputation.
In an electric Upper Darby gym, the Lower Merion Aces refused to be intimidated, and quite simply refused to lose. Taking their first lead late in the 1st quarter and never giving it away despite the Royals’ best efforts, the Aces stunned Upper Darby, 73-66, to advance to the quarter finals of the District I AAAA tournament and earned a berth in the PIAA state playoffs. Sophomore Raheem Hall kept up his stellar play of late, leading all scorers with 20 points, many of which came in transition and from relentless determination on the offensive glass. Senior forward Eric Green contributed 15 points and senior Darius Hall had 12, including eight in the final frame.
The game started off as a back and forth affair, with Lower Merion holding a 12-11 lead after one quarter of play. Led by the stellar play of Hall and senior Mike Buchwald (9 points), who knocked down a big three, the Aces dominated the 2nd period, and went into halftime with a 32-23 lead.
The start of the 2nd half was not so kind to Lower Merion. Upper Darby erupted on a a 9-2 run, and eventually pulled within one before a strong finish put Lower Merion up by a score of 46-40 at the end of the third quarter. Sophomore BJ Johnson (10 points) came up huge in the third, with two acrobatic put-back layups, including a buzzer-beater at the close of the frame.
Still, the Royals weren’t done. Not by a long shot. They tied the game at 48 on a banked three pointer and kept it close until a D. Hall 3-pointer with just under four minutes left gave the Aces a 62-54 lead. Despite a few more flurries by Upper Darby, LM hit enough layups and big free throws down the stretch to keep things from getting too interesting. The night-capper was a transition hoop from an airborne Mike Robbins (6 points, 6 rebounds, 4 steals), who caught a D. Hall pass while soaring to the rim. The layup gave the Aces their final seven-point cushion.
Key to victory was the Aces’ ability to create foul trouble for Upper Darby, most notably big man Daron “Tiny” Harris, who picked up four fouls in total, including two within the first two minutes thanks to heady play by senior Luke Chambers and aggressive drives to the rim by Green. The Royals’ Terrence Bridges, the team’s leading scorer on the year, also had four – the last of which came on a charging foul taken by Johnson early in the fourth quarter. In the end, the Aces’ stifling team defense on the Royals’ big three of Bridges, Harris and Brandon Hashim led to a win that will not soon be forgotten by anyone in attendance. Nearly all of the talented trio’s points were hard-earned.
After a one-year hiatus, Lower Merion returns to the District quarterfinals, where they will play at #5 Neshaminy on Friday at 7 PM. The Redskins, who crushed Glen Mills 60-36 on Tuesday, are led by junior phenom Ryan Arcidiacano, a top-50 player nationally who is already committed to play for Villanova. Upper Darby drops into the playoff consolation bracket, where they must win three straight games for a state playoff berth.
Since starting the season 6-6, the Aces have gone 11-1 to push their record to 17-7. This is the 10th time in 20 years at the helm that Gregg Downer has guided a Lower Merion team to a state playoff berth.
Lower Merion 12 20 14 27 – 73
Upper Darby 11 12 17 26 – 66For Main Line Times coverage and video from the Aces’ win, go to: http://www.mainlinemedianews.com/articles/2011/02/23/sports/doc4d646ef13d0bc381893738.txt