By Saul Desjardins '17
Those who were in the Bryant Gymnasium on Saturday night witnessed one of the greatest regular season games in Lower Merion history. Two overtimes, buzzer beater threes, floor burns and game-saving charges, a roller-coaster ride of epic proportions. The Aces and New Castle Red Hurricanes battled for every inch ? and did it with toughness, grit and class. In the end, however, it was New Castle that had a 62-59 advantage on the scoreboard.
New Castle arrived undefeated, ranked #3 in PA, #1 in Western PA and riding a nearly 60-game regular season winning streak. In fact, their only loss in the last two seasons had come at the hands of the Aces last March in the state semifinals. But this was a different Aces team ? and a different New Castle squad. And both teams were ready to write their own chapter in state high school basketball lore.
The Bryant Gymnasium was rocking as the two teams took the floor at the start of the game. The Dawg Pound, in postseason form, roared as the Aces hung tough with a Red Hurricanes team that had entered as a heavy favorite. LM battled back from a 20-13 first quarter deficit, to knot the game at 23 early in the second quarter and trailed by just five at halftime.
After the break, New Castle continued to maintain a small advantage, but the Aces were showing signs of strength. LM matched the Hurricanes bucket for bucket, made key defensive stops and prevented New Castle from playing the kind of high octane transition game that has made them the highest-scoring team in the state. By the end of the third, the Aces had drawn to within one, at 43-42.
Early in the fourth, LM took its first lead of the game at 45-43 on a Nick Jones ?15 three-pointer, before New Castle responded with a run to go back up by five with five minutes to play. But a Corey Sherman ?15 three and Justin McFadden ?14 lay-up tied the game. After nearly two scoreless minutes, New Castle converted a layup and led 51-49 with less than a minute to play. But Jule Brown ?15 answered with a tough spinning layup of his own, setting up the final sequence in regulation. New Castle held the ball till the nine second mark, before star wing Malik Hooker made his move to the rim. As Hooker elevated, McFadden stepped in to take a perfect charge ? which caused Hooker to foul out. LM would re-claim possession, with five seconds to play. However, the Aces? inbounds pass was deflected into the hands of a New Castle player, which led to a foul by Aces starting point guard JaQuan Johnson ?14 ? his fifth of the night. The Hurricanes regained possession with 2.6 on the clock, but their three at the buzzer fell short and the game went to its first overtime.
Things didn?t look good for the Aces in the extra frame. New Castle controlled the ball for the first 90-seconds of play before getting a lay-up and forcing an Aces turnover. LM was forced to foul and the Red Hurricanes converted both free throws to go up four with less than 30 seconds to play. But McFadden answered with a tough layup and then New Castle missed the front end of a one-and-one. The Aces had one more chance and again Brown delivered, tying the game at 55 on a drive to the rim. New Castle set up for their last play, but the Aces got another game-saving charge ? this time from Sherman, who stepped in on a Hurricanes layup attempt just before the buzzer. An LM heave was off the mark and the two teams headed into double-overtime.
The final four minutes of the game, and particularly the final forty seconds, were a reminder that no game is over until it is over ? and proof of the glory, agony and excitement that is basketball. The Aces got on the board first on a Steve Pendleton ?15 layup, then forced a turnover and got two free throws from Jones. LM?s defense held until a New Castle free throw cut the margin to 3. Up 59-56 with less than 30 seconds to play, the Aces had possession and had the Red Hurricanes on their heels. But a costly turnover gave New Castle new life and they made the most of the opportunity. The Aces defense, which had given up almost no open looks the entire night, held firm for much of the next 20 seconds. The ball ended up in the hands of New Castle?s Anthony Richards, one of the state?s most deadly snipers, and two Aces desperately rushed to meet him. Unable to get an open look, Richards swung the ball out of trouble and it made its way into the hands of teammate Drew Allen in the left corner. Allen launched a three and was fouled on a hard LM closeout as the ball sailed through the net. He converted the four-point play and gave New Castle the lead ? and ultimately, the win. The Aces couldn?t score on their final possession and the visitors escaped with the victory.
If there are basketball gods, tonight they were on the side of the Red Hurricanes, a team that had traveled from the western corner of Pennsylvania for the chance to get some payback for their heartbreaking loss to the Aces in last year?s state playoffs. Saturday night certainly had a playoff atmosphere. The good news for the Aces, however, is that it wasn?t a season-ending loss. In fact, it was the kind of gritty, relentless performance that should steel them as they head into the final month of the season. There are few, if any, teams in the state that play as hard and together as New Castle. On Saturday night, remarkably, the same could be said for a young, improving Aces squad.
McFadden led the Aces with a game-high 18 points and took home team MVP honors of the game, the night cap of the Kobe Bryant Classic. Brown added 17 points and five rebounds.
LM returns to action on Tuesday night at home against Radnor. Tip-off is 7:00 PM.