By Chendu Gwynn '20
In an epic high school basketball game that wasn’t decided until the final possession, the Aces knocked off top-seed and defending 5A District 1 champion Penncrest 48-46 to win their second straight Central League title and fifth in the last seven years.
The knockout blow came from junior Steve Payne, who drove the lane with time winding down in a tie game and somehow found enough daylight to lift an acrobatic floater high off the glass that caromed around the rim and in. The Aces held on for the final 2.6 seconds and rushed the court as the buzzer sounded to celebrate a remarkable, gritty victory and the program’s 14th league title under Head Coach Gregg Downer.
It was another inspiring performance by Payne, who continues to shoulder a load much heavier than high school basketball. The junior guard, whose father passed just before tryouts, once again delivered under pressure in a season defined by his courage and strength. He led the Aces with 18 points, including eight of the team’s 11 points in the fourth quarter, and added eight rebounds, four assists and two timely three-pointers.
Every Ace that took the floor made an important contribution in a game in which every possession mattered. Josh Martin ’19 cleaned up the glass, with a team-high 11 rebounds. Harrison Klevan ’18 drilled three huge treys, including a game-tying heave just before the halftime buzzer and another in the fourth to give LM a late lead. Jack Forrest ’19, the target of blanket coverage by the Penncrest defense, spaced the floor and played some of his best defense of the season. Darryl Taylor ’19 came up clutch at the free-throw line, going 6-7 and keeping the Aces in the game in the first half. Matt O’Connor ’19, Jared Robinson ’18 and Julian Hairston ’19 all saw key minutes, helping the Aces to hang tough against a fierce Lions squad looking for payback after a buzzer-beater loss in last year’s Central League semifinals.
LM turned in arguably its best defensive performance of the season, limiting Penncrest’s high-octane attack to its second-lowest tally of the 2017-18 campaign. Payne and Taylor had the difficult task of shadowing Lions star and all-time leading scorer Tyler Norwood, who finished with a hard-earned 19 points in his final career contest against Lower Merion.
The victory ensures that “2018” will be added to the Central League Championship banner in Bryant Gymnasium, an extraordinary accomplishment for a squad that that has faced adversity in many forms. But there is little time to celebrate. The Aces now turn their attention to the second round of the District 1 playoffs (the Aces earned a first round bye) and a matchup next Tuesday night at home against the winner of Conestoga vs. Cheltenham. Tip-off is 7 PM.