By J.J. Daigneault '16
How about those Aces!
Counted out by many as a Central League contender after losses to Haverford and Penncrest to start the season, LM completed a remarkable turnaround on Tuesday night. In a game that played out much like their regular season, the Aces roared back from an eight-point first-quarter deficit to beat Conestoga 64-55 and claim a third straight league title.
The victory had all the hallmarks of a classic Aces performance: tough defense, clutch shooting and plenty of grit and determination. For a young team that had dropped several heartbreakers earlier in the year, it was clear evidence of how far they?ve grown over the past few months. Instead of wavering in the fourth quarter, they seemed to get stronger. Every Conestoga surge was met with a convincing -- and at times, ferocious -- response. When the final buzzer sounded and the Dawg Pound streamed onto the floor in celebration, there was no denying the obvious. The 2014 Aces are very deserving Central League champions and a very different team than the one that started the season 1-3.
Conestoga, the top seed in the upcoming District 1 tournament, entered the game with a gaudy 19-3 record and an impressive 55-33 win over Penncrest in the league semis on Sunday. In the early going, the Pioneers showed why they are one of the top teams in the area, racing to a 13-5 lead and finishing the first quarter up 19-13. If not for eight first quarter points from Corey Sherman ?15, the Aces would have trailed by even more.
But LM responded quickly. Buckets by JaQuan Johnson ?14 and Justin McFadden ?14 narrowed the gap to two. At the 5:28 mark, Nick Jones ?15 scored on an offensive rebound to knot the game at 19-19. Less than a minute later, Pendleton drained a three to give the Aces a 24-21 lead and they would never look back. LM outscored the Pioneers 16-6 in the second quarter and led 29-25 at halftime.
Perhaps most impressive, the Aces built their lead with McFadden battling foul trouble throughout much of the game. LM?s all-league senior went to the bench early in the second quarter and was replaced by Oliver Henry ?14. Though it didn?t show up in the box score, Henry?s contributions were enormous. The senior reserve anchored the Aces in the post while McFadden was out of the game, grabbing three rebounds and playing stellar interior defense.
McFadden returned in the second half and scored the first four points of the third quarter, pushing the Aces? lead to 33-25. Conestoga battled back to within five, but two late McFadden free throws gave LM a 44-37 advantage heading into the final frame.
The Pioneers made one last charge at the start of the fourth quarter. A Conestoga three and layup narrowed the score to 44-42, but McFadden was fouled going to the rim on the ensuing possession and converted both free throws. Two Aces stops resulted in consecutive threes for Sherman, a ten-point cushion at 52-42 and an all-out frenzy from the Dawg Pound. Conestoga scored to pull within eight, but Pendleton responded with a three of his own. With just under two minutes to play and the Aces up seven, Jule Brown ?15 delivered the night-capper, going coast-to-coast off a steal and rising for an emphatic dunk. LM shot well from the free throw line in the closing minute to seal the final margin.
Following the game, the Aces players and coaches took their turns climbing a ladder to cut down the championship net in the Harriton gym. It was a scene that seemed impossible back in December. But as we?ve learned over the years in Aces Nation, it?s what?s possible in February and March that matters most.
LM returns to action Friday night in Round 1 of the District 1 tournament. The Aces (17-6, 16-2) take on CB East at home at 7 PM.