600! It’s been an emotional stretch for Coach D and the squad, so it was nice to get back to having some fun on what turned out to be an historic night. Coach earned his 600th career victory — the most among active 6A coaches in District 1 — as the Aces beat Conestoga 41-39.
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ARDMORE — Gregg Downer knew the significance of Tuesday night’s game. Yes, it was a chance for his Aces to lock up the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the Central League playoffs.
But it was also Downer’s first opportunity to get win No. 600. He just didn’t tell his players.
And though it took the entire 40 minutes, Lower Merion eked out a 41-39 victory on its home floor, holding off a late-charging Conestoga squad and overcoming a miserable second half of offense. Senior Eli Rothman stepped up with 16 points, stepping into the starting lineup and playing all 32 minutes as he shouldered the brunt of the Aces’ scoring.
“It’s great to be a part of the team that got him that 600th win,” senior James Simples said. “I just want to make Coach happy — he works hard, we work hard, and it makes us happy when we get the results.”
Following a 12-1 start to the season, some might’ve expected Downer to join the 600-win club sooner. But a rocky 1-4 run in the last two-plus weeks, sandwiched around the shocking death of Lower Merion icon Kobe Bryant, delayed the momentous occasion.
So, when the public address announcer told the crowd that Tuesday’s win was indeed Downer’s 600th, even the longtime coach broke from his usually stoic character.
“I’ve been around a long time,” Downer said. “I’ve been lucky enough to coach a lot of great players and I’ve had a lot of great coaches come along for this ride with me. You stay around long enough and sometimes you’ll get to a big number. The 500 number was a big one, and the 600 number is another big one.”
For a little while, it looked as if the win was going to be wrapped up early. The Aces seized control, holding Conestoga scoreless for nearly four minutes to start the second quarter as they pulled ahead 24-11.
But a miserable third quarter, an eight-minute stretch in which Lower Merion managed just four field-goal attempts and made only one, allowed the Pioneers to get right back into things, trailing 33-30 at the start of the 4th.
“Coach wanted us to have a full game,” Simples said. “Sixteen minutes is alright, but we want a whole 32 minutes of great play. Honestly, we fell off in the third quarter, but it’s great to have those experiences and the challenge of being able to get over the hump.”
Although Rothman didn’t play a massive role down the stretch — despite hitting two free throws in the final seconds to ice the win — the usual sixth man got a chance to show what he’s capable of, especially if Brown is out for an extended period of time with a right foot injury that had him on a scooter Tuesday.
Eli Rothman (above, in December) led Lower Merion with 16 points in the win. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
He canned three of his first four shots from distance and logged 10 points before halftime, and Rothman finished 4-of-7 from the field with all of his attempts coming from 3-point land.
Downer didn’t even tell Rothman that he’d be making the start until an hour before tip.
“I know my abilities and I knew at some point I was going to have a game like this,” Rothman said. “This is not my first varsity game, so I’m used to playing games and I’ve learned to channel my nerves. I kind of put them to the side when I’m in the game, and I tried to do the exact same thing.”
The performance drew high praise from Rothman’s coach.
“He’s worked incredibly hard for that moment,” Downer said. “We’re proud of him.”
But Tuesday night, at least afterward, was a celebration of Downer and yet another milestone he’s accomplished in his 30-year career at the helm of Lower Merion.
Less than 10 days removed from the shocking death of a man Downer called “his hero,” finding things to smile about hasn’t been easy for the Aces. Yet, with Bryant’s No. 33 jersey now hanging on the wall, Downer continued doing what he and Bryant so often did together: win.
Even before Lower Merion's win was inputted in the District 1 website Tuesday night, the Aces were No. 5 in the unofficial 6A rankings, well in position for a top-eight spot and the first-round bye such positioning provides.
“It’s not about me,” Downer said. “This ballclub has done a good job getting to where they are. We wanted to get a bye in the league tournament, we wanted to get a bye in the district tournament, and I think tonight’s win accomplished that.”