The Aces came up just short in their bid for a Burger King Classic championship, but they proved in Erie that they can play with anyone.
One night after knocking off nationally-ranked Bishop O'Connell, the Aces lost 64-61 to defending PA AA state champ Imhotep in a heavyweight battle that went down to the wire.
After falling behind 16-10 in the first quarter, LM battled back in the second frame. The Aces scored on five consecutive offensive possessions in a momentum-shifting 10-2 run that gave LM a 30-27 lead. A steal and lay-in by BJ Johnson '13 was followed by a Yohanny Dalembert '13 jumper, two free throws from Baird Howland '13, a pretty leaner by Johnson and a scintillating end-to-end drive by Raheem Hall '13. The Panthers scored just before half to close within one at 30-29.
The Aces extended the margin in the third to five points on two straight post scores by Dalembert and had three opportunities to push their lead to seven, but couldn't convert. Imhotep made the most of second chances, scoring eight points in the quarter on offensive rebounds. By the end of the frame, the score was tied 43-43.
The Panthers controlled the early part of the fourth quarter, building a seven point margin with a little more than six minutes to play. But the Aces showed their mettle yet again, chipping away at the lead with clutch baskets and stingy defense. A Justin McFadden '14 three and two free throws by Dalembert narrowed the gap to one at 59-58 with just over a minute to play. Imhotep converted free throws and again pushed the lead to five, but Johnson drilled a deep three making it 63-61with less than 30 seconds left on the clock. After Imhotep converted a free throw, Johnson shot a three and appeared to be fouled. But Imhotep regained possession and had a chance to ice the game at the line. Two misses, however, gave LM one final shot to tie. Imhotep defended the inbounds well and a difficult three-point attempt by Corey Sherman '15 fell short.
It was a difficult pill to swallow for a team that had battled back the night before and were on the cusp of their second in-season tournament championship. It was not for lack of effort -- or even execution. LM had only nine turnovers on the game, and despite shooting just 3-14 from three, outscored the Panthers in the paint and shot a respectable 14-20 from the line. Hats off to Imhotep, a talented, balanced and well-coached team that made enough big plays down the stretch to emerge with the victory.
Johnson led the Aces with 26 points and 12 rebounds. Dalembert had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven blocks. Hall added 11 points and four assists.
The Aces held Panthers star Brandon Austin to 12 hard-earned points, thanks in large part to the defensive efforts of McFadden.
Despite the loss, the weekend concluded with many positives for the Aces. The competition was excellent and provided a good barometer of where the Aces stand heading into the final month of the regular season. The team earned a win against a top-25 program and had a defending state champ on the ropes. Add to that a truly great basketball environment and the tremendous hospitality of the Erie community, Cathedral Prep and Burger King. All in all, it was a very worthwhile and memorable trip.
The Aces (14-2) conclude their brutal non-league schedule with an impressive 4-2 record, earning wins against two nationally-ranked opponents (St. Frances and Bishop O'Connell) and two perennial powers (St. Joe's Prep and St. Raymond's). Now they turn their attention back to the Central League. Next up for the Aces is a match-up on the road at Conestoga on Wednesday night at 7:30 PM.