Woulda. Shoulda. Coulda.
The Aces cut a 15-point deficit to three with less than three minutes to play, but couldn't get over the hump in a 61-53 loss to Chester in the District 1 AAAA Final on Friday night.
Proving they could hang with the nation's 4th-ranked team offered little consolation. LM played without fear. They played with physicality. They played hard. For much of three quarters, however, they just didn't play very well.
Credit the Clippers' swarming defense for forcing 22 LM turnovers, including 14 in the first half. Despite a BJ Johnson '12 dunk to start the game, the Aces fell behind 17-9 at the end of one and shot just 6-27 through the first 16 minutes. Many of the blanks the Aces fired were shots that have gone down during the team's stellar playoff run. Layups, pull-up jumpers, free throws -- nothing seemed to find the twine. For the first time all season, the Aces didn't connect on a single three-point attempt.
And yet in spite of the team's shooting woes and turnovers, the Aces stayed within striking distance. The high-flying Clippers struggled to find a rhythm of their own. Late in the third quarter, it appeared that Chester might finally pull away, taking a 43-28 lead on consecutive putbacks. But Darryl Reynolds '12 answered with a three-point play, and the Aces finally began to mount a run.
LM used a full-court press and the inside play of Reynolds to chip away at the Clippers' advantage in the fourth. Consecutive steals by Raheem Hall '13 and Jaquan Johnson '14 and a drive by Yohanny Dalembert '13 narrowed the gap to 49-43. Minutes later, LM cut the margin to four on a Reynolds jumper. A free-throw by Johnson pulled the Aces to within three at 53-50. Momentum had turned and the Dawg Pound, more than 700-strong and roaring from the upper balcony was ready to explode.
On the ensuing Chester inbound pass, the Aces forced a steal and had a chance to pull within one at the 2:48 mark, but the Clippers forced another turnover. After a Chester bucket, the Aces again pulled within three -- this time on a layup by Hall.
But LM would draw no closer. The Clippers converted against the Aces' press and made enough foul shots to prevent LM from pulling off the upset.
Reynolds led LM with 21 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks and shot a perfect 7-7 from the foul line. Hall added 14 points. Johnson (6 points), Dalembert (5 points), Justin McFadden '14 (3 points), JaQuan Johnson (2 points) and Mike Robbins '12 (2 points) rounded out the scoring.
For all of the Aces' faults against Chester, there were signs that could prove promising as they prepare for the next leg of the postseason. This is a team that started two sophomores and two juniors on Friday night. It is a team that had a grand total of three players returning from last year's team with meaningful playoff experience (one of whom played his biggest minutes on Friday since returning from injury). Under the bright lights of Villanova's Pavilion, in front of 7,000 fans, the 2011-12 Aces could easily have melted when the fire started to get hot. Instead, they battled hard and more than looked the part of a serious contender.
And perhaps most importantly, when the silver medals were handed out at the end of the night, they looked like a team that wants to play for a medal of a different color.
Preparation for the state playoffs begins this week. The Aces will take on Dover of District 3 next Saturday. Time and location TBD. Details will be posted on aceshoops.com in the coming days.
LM: 9 7 15 22 - 53
C: 17 9 17 18 - 61
LM: JaQuan Johnson 2, Raheem Hall 14, Darryl Reynolds 21, B.J. Johnson 6, Yohanny Dalembert 5, Justin McFadden 3, Mike Robbins 2.
C: Kareem Robinson 9, Darius Robinson 15, Richard Granberry 2, Erikk Wright 10, Rondae Jefferson 15, Tymier Butler 4, Tavaune Griffin 6.