Trailing Harrisburg by eight points with just over five minutes to play, the Aces dug deep for one of the most stirring comeback wins in team history.
The run began with a thunderous driving reverse dunk from Yohanny Dalembert '13 on the right baseline and culminated with a slam for the ages by BJ Johnson '13. With less than 15 seconds on the clock and the Aces down 59-58, Raheem Hall dished to Johnson for a backdoor, and-one dunk in traffic to give the Aces the lead -- their first since the third quarter. After a Harrisburg turnover, JaQuan Johnson '14 was fouled and drilled two free throws to put the Aces up 63-59. A Harrisburg three fell harmlessly through the rim at the buzzer. Pandemonium ensued. The Dawg Pound stormed the court. The Aces had punched their ticket to the state semifinals.
Saturday's game at Reading's Geigle Complex was an instant classic between two basketball heavyweights. The deep and talented Cougars (28-3), champions of District 3, were riding an eight-game winning streak. LM (28-3) had earned convincing wins in their two opening state playoff games. Something had to give, but it would take almost 32 minutes of gritty and inspired play to determine the outcome.
The Aces found themselves playing from behind most of the contest, though not by much. LM trailed 12-11 after one and 27-23 at the end of a helter-skelter first half. Both teams worked hard to protect the rim, and despite the frenzied pace, there were few clean scoring opportunities. The Aces opened the third on a 7-0 run and appeared poised to seize control of the game. But Harrisburg called time-out and battled back to regain the lead at 44-43 by the end of the quarter.
Things looked bleak at the start of the fourth as Dalembert picked up his fourth foul and the Aces missed the mark on their first four shot attempts. The Cougars capitalized on two consecutive LM turnovers, including a three-point play that pushed the margin to 51-43 and sent the Harrisburg faithful into a frenzy. But Dalembert responded immediately with a baseline slam that ignited the Aces' final surge. A Justin McFadden '14 jumper narrowed the gap to six. Minutes later, Corey Sherman '15 drained a three to cut the Cougars lead to three at 55-52. After a Harrisburg bucket, Johnson hit a floater and JaQuan hit two free throws to bring the Aces within one at 57-56. Harrisburg again scored to push the margin to 59-56. Hall answered with a spinning drive through lane for a layup. After a Cougars miss, Dalembert drove hard to the basket but his layup attempt rimmed out. Now in desperation mode, and potentially needing to foul, LM's press forced a Harrisburg turnover before the Cougars could get to half-court. With less than 20 seconds to play, the stage was set for a wild -- aceswild -- finish.
The Aces received important contributions from a number of players. Hall scored a game-high 16 points and added six assists and five steals. BJ finished with 14 points, including a trey and the go-ahead basket. JaQuan added 12 points and shot 8-8 from the foul line. Dalembert scored 12 points and recorded 16 rebounds and seven blocks. Sherman hit two big threes for his six points. McFadden finished with two points and Baird Howland '13 added one off the bench. LM also received quality minutes from Jule Brown '15. LM shot 19-21 from the foul line.
Following the game, Aces head coach Gregg Downer credited the Aces' gutsy win to "grit, a refuse-to-lose attitude, togetherness, and knowing we have ten seniors on this team that would run through a brick wall to keep their season going."
The current group of seniors -- with the help of their underclassmen teammates -- proved just how hungry they were on Saturday. This is one of the most accomplished squads in team history, with two undefeated league campaigns, two district finals and a state final under their belt. They boast wins against several nationally-ranked opponents. They've come up big in big moments. But Saturday was different. It was the kind of nerve-wracking, high-stakes, gut-it-out signature win against a championship-caliber opponent that great teams must have on the resume to build cred and secure legacy. There are bigger goals in sight, to be sure, but the Aces proved their mettle and captured hearts the old-fashioned way.
Quite simply, they refused to lose. And that's what Aces Basketball is all about.
LM will take on undefeated WPIAL power New Castle on Tuesday night in the state semifinals at Williamsport HS. Tip-off is 7 PM. Tickets are available in the LMHS athletic office from 9 AM - 4 PM on Monday and 7 AM - 12 PM on Tuesday or until sold out. Additional information will be posted on the Aces Basketball Facebook page as soon as it is available.