Dear Friends of Lower Merion Basketball,
It is a game people will be remember for a long, long time. An instant classic and an affirmation of the quality and excitement of high school basketball in our area. Unfortunately, it was also a reminder that sometimes someone else gets to taste a little magic. Such was the case Friday night as Chester topped the Aces on a buzzer beater in OT, 83-80. By all accounts, it was shot-for-shot, possession-by-possession one of the best games ever played in the history of District 1. And while there's no net to cut down for 2nd place, there is some consolation in knowing that the Aces are playing some very fine basketball heading into the State tournament. A team that many pundits had written off several weeks ago, a high-flying underdog in three straight games, the Aces (23-6) have earned the #2 seed in the Eastern bracket. States begin Saturday, March 11 with a 1st round match-up against Edison of the Philadelphia Public League. Gametime is 2:30 PM at Spring-Ford High School. To view the entire state bracket, click here.
Game Recap: The Aces arrived at the Pavilion on Friday fresh off the heels of a 62-55 victory against #1 seed Plymouth Whitemarsh. Energy and confidence were high and excitement had reached fever pitch in Aces Nation. The win at the Palestra had set up a re-match with long-time rival Chester and despite the Clippers' higher seed, there was tremendous belief among the players that the orange jerseys would be in for a dogfight. Following a video and conversation with several alumni back at school, the team boarded the bus for the 10 minute ride down Lancaster Ave. for the District Final. After brief warm-up and stretch in the Jake Nevin Fieldhouse, the players returned to the Villanova men's locker room for our pregame discussion. The guys enjoyed the opportunity to share the same locker spaces as Kyle Lowry, Allan Ray and the boys in the blue and white, and like the 'Cats, there was no question we'd be leaving it all on the floor.
The slow, rhythmic jog from the locker room into an arena packed with screaming fans is a thrill that never gets old. And it's truly a blessing that we've been able to enjoy so many of these moments in the past few years. As the players ran onto the court and a sea of maroon and rose to greet them with a roar, there was good reason to give pause. This was, at least at first glance, the single-largest gathering of Aces fans that I had ever seen. They stretched from the floor to the top of the rafters and circled almost halfway around the building. A District championship game in our backyard - it had been a dream at the beginning of the season, and now it was a reality. Mike Venafra, an alumnus, thousand point scorer and a current assistant coach had reinforced this message earlier in the evening when he asked the players to write the letter "R" on a piece of tape to put around their wrists. It would serve as a reminder during the game that we were no longer playing for some pie in the sky dream - that we were here for a reason -- we'd proven ourselves capable of this reality.
The first quarter opened with a lay-up off the tap by Ryan. Chester followed with a made three and began to impose their height and athleticism with a series of possessions marked by 2nd chance points. At the end of the 1st, Chester led 18-13 with the help of six points from mid-season transfer and George Mason-bound forward Richard Fleming. The Clippers continued to pound offensive glass in the 2nd, which led to a dunk and kick-out three. With the deficit at ten, the Aces began to mount a slow and steady comeback, thanks in large part to the magnificent play of Ryan Brooks and big shots from Pete Lucas, physical play from Jon Gray and key offensive boards from Greg Robbins. Ryan scored 11 of his game-high 27 points in the quarter, including two threes, a pull-up jumper and a breakaway dunk. The pace of the game was frenetic - by halftime the score was 40-37.
The Aces continue to chip away at the lead in the third, with major contributions off the bench from Ernest Moore and Eric Barefield. Late in the quarter, Ernest lured St. Joe's bound guard Darrin Govens into committing his 4th foul, sending the senior Clippers star to the bench. It was at this time that Garrett started heating up, getting to the basket at will and drawing fouls. By the end of the third, the Aces were shooting bonus free throws and the tide of the game had seemingly turned with the game though the Aces trailed 57-55.
In the fourth, Chester went up four thanks to an early bucket from sharp shooting guard Karon Burton. Late in the quarter, however, Garrett found his way to the basket and Pete drained consecutive threes, giving the Aces their first lead since early in the 1st, eventually pushing the margin to five. Govens returned to the floor and made an immediate impact by getting to the basket for an and-one. It was big shot after big shot - both teams were throwing their best punches and the crowd rose to its feet. With 3 seconds to play and the game tied, Govens drove the lane and lost the ball on a tough runner. Pete called a heady time-out with 1.6 on the clock. A last-second heave from Ryan missed the mark and we headed to overtime.
More drama ensued. Four lead changes, big threes and spotless free-throw shooting had the game knotted at 80-80 with less than five seconds to go, Chester ball. Off an inbounds play Burton took the ball high at the top of the key and tried to make a move on Ernest. But Ernest gave no ground (as he had done all night). With the horn about to blow, Burton dribbled left and launched a fadeaway from five feet beyond the arc over Ernest's outstretched hand that found the bottom of the net. Game over, Chester wins.
We all stood in stunned disbelief for a few moments and the medal ceremony was a tough one. But we received a firm and fast reminder in the locker room. If we wanted to have a chance of playing these guys again, we had to commit ourselves to the next leg of the journey, the state playoffs. And that brings us to the week ahead as we prepare for the biggest and potentially the sweetest part of the postseason, the chance to return to Hershey.
Thanks to all of you for your continued support this season. It has been an awesome sight to behold. Hope to see you in the stands on Saturday!
LM/Chester Box Score
LM: Ryan Brooks 27, Garrett Williamson 21, Peter Lucas 9, Eric Barefield 4, Greg Robbins 7, Jon Gray 4, Arian Thompson 3, Ernest Moore 5.
C: Alonzo Jones 11, Karon Burton 21, Darrin Govens 19, Lamene Church 8, Shakiyl Reid 9, Richard Flemming 13, Brandon Robinson 2.