Oliver Cohen ’10 soars to the rim for two of his ten points in the Aces’ win on Monday night
By Steve Mandelbaum
It was as if the Aces needed to make a Herculean task even more difficult. Perhaps it was for effect -- going down 10-0 in the first quarter, losing their second-leading scorer to foul trouble, having a critical late possession stolen away by an "inadvertent whistle." In a season marked by challenge and adversity, these scrappy Aces simply did on Tuesday night what they've been doing all along -- they played hard until the final whistle. And in so doing, they delivered a remarkable 46-44 victory over a Conestgoa team that hadn't lost since last February. The win assured a four-team league playoff to determine an outright champion. Had Conestoga finished the league campaign undefeated, the playoff would have been avoided.
The thought that Lower Merion would be standing at 17-4 with a chance to play for a league title would have been ludicrous two months ago. After losing three of their first four games and two senior starters to season-shortening injuries, the Aces were primed for an uphill battle. Yet, somehow they plugged along and started to find a rhythm. Winners of 16 of their last 17 games, including 12 in a row, it is now safe to say that Lower Merion -- at the very least -- has arrived as a team that must be respected in District play.
Tuesday was Conestoga’s Senior Night and the gym was packed with fans from both schools. The atmosphere was electric in the moments leading up to tip-off, and the Pioneers seemed to harness the energy, racing to a 10-0 lead in the first three minutes of play. Conestoga senior Robert Scott ignited the run with a three-pointer; his teammate, Davidson-bound 6’10” senior center Jake Cohen, dominated on the interior, nailing two consecutive baskets and blocking three shots on the defensive end.
Things were looking bleak for the Maroon & White. Senior co-captain Greg Robbins missed his first seven shots from the field and the team missed 11 consecutive shots overall until a Harley Williamson layup with 4:15 to play in the first quarter finally put the Aces on the board.
Nevertheless, the Aces managed to battle back after the poor start thanks to gritty defense and timely shots. Junior Oliver Cohen keyed a 15-6 run over the next six minutes, connecting on a three-pointer and mid-range jump shot, while Williamson did his work in the paint, going for six points. Robbins, who scored two points on free throws in the first frame, hit his first field goal -- a layup -- in the second quarter to narrow the Pioneers' lead to five. The Aces cut the lead to two, but Stoga went into halftime up four, 23-19.
Williamson picked up his third and fourth fouls early in the third quarter and was forced to exit the game. The loss of Williamson, who was leading the team in rebounding and blocked shots, was mitigated only by the steely resolve of the never-say-die Aces and the individual efforts of Greg Robbins, who almost single-handedly controlled the interior over the next ten minutes of play.
A guard one minute and a center the next, Robbins has proven time and again of his willingness to do whatever it takes to win. In the case of Tuesday night, Robbins was leaned on to help limit the 6'11 Cohen to three field goals and nine points overall. On the offensive end, Robbins got going in the second half and finished with a game high 14-points, including a steal and breakaway dunk during a third quarter run that cut the Pioneers lead to two, and another steal and lay-up at the 1:15 mark of the quarter to give the Aces their first tie of the game.
With 6:55 left in the game, Lower Merion took the lead for the first time on junior Alon Seltzer's layup off a beautiful feed from sophomore Matt McKenna. After two Conestoga made free throws and a flurry of missed opportunities on both ends, the Pioneers' Mike D'Angelo nailed a three-pointer to put his team back on top 39-36. The Aces responded immediately; Williamson converted a three-point play the old-fashioned way at the 2:51 mark. On the next possession, Stoga's D'Angelo earned a trip to the line and made a free throw and the Pioneers held a 40-39 advantage. The game remained on a see-saw until Cohen hit another three-pointer with 2:00 left, putting the Aces up 42-40. On the next possession, Cohen and Seltzer teamed for a steal in the backcourt, which led to two free throws by Seltzer. Up four, the two teams traded free throws until a wild final Conestoga possession.
With 1.4 seconds left and Lower Merion holding a three-point lead, Seltzer was called for a foul on a desperation three-point attempt by the Pioneers' D’Angelo. After making the first and missing the second of three free-throws, D’Angelo intentionally missed the final attempt, with Lower Merion collecting the rebound. However, an inadvertent whistle by the referee as the ball carromed off the front iron -- the referee thought the ball had missed the rim -- led to a stoppage of play and a jump-ball call, forcing a reversal of possession. Conestoga found themselves with an inbounds opportunity underneath the hoop with .7 seconds left, down 2 points. Their final shot, however, clanked harmlessly off of the side of the rim.
A celebration ensued, as Lower Merion's Dawg Pound -- almost 400 strong and boisterous all evening -- stormed the court. The Aces funneled into the locker room to enjoy the moment.
Williamson was terrific, scoring 13 points, while blocking 3 shots. Oliver Cohen, who drained 10 points had a huge block and steal late to help seal the contest. Seltzer finished with nine points, including a key second-half three. Seniors Vince Weldon and Nick Bibbs, unsung heroes all season long, again impacted the game in a big way on the defensive end. Robbins was sensational, once again, coming up clutch and leading the team to victory. Most impressive was the Aces' perfect 16/16 performance from the charity stripe. The free throws proved to be the difference in the game.
Despite the temptation to savor this victory, the Aces still have work to do to close out the regular season. They head home to Bala Cynwyd Middle School on Tuesday night, Senior Night, to face off against an always-dangerous Haverford High team. Tip-off is 7:30.
The first round of the Central league championship playoffs will begin Thursday night. The Aces will host either Penncrest or Upper Darby at 7:30 PM at Bala Cynwyd.
Lower Merion: 8 11 13 14 – 46
Conestoga: 15 8 9 12 – 44
LM: Greg Robbins 14, Harley Williamson 13, Oliver Cohen 10, Alon Seltzer 9
C: Mike D’Angelo 14, Jake Cohen 9, Matt O’Hara 7, Robert Scott 5, Zach Shapiro 3, Paul Mita 2, Doug Jakiela 2