By NEIL GEOGHEGAN
TREDYFFRIN – The rubber match between the regular season basketball champs and the playoff winners in the Central League certainly didn’t live up to all the hype. And Mike Troy couldn’t be any happier.
The Conestoga boy’s head coach was just as surprised as anybody when his Pioneers went out on Tuesday and clobbered rival Lower Merion, 77-57, in the second round of the District 1 Class 6A Playoffs. That’s because the two split a pair of regular season outings, with ’Stoga winning in overtime and the Aces prevailing on a buzzer-beater.
“Quite frankly, I expected a close game tonight,” Troy said. “I just thought our team played at a different level. It’s a credit to our guys and how hard they played. Nobody took a play off tonight, and that’s what you need for playoff basketball.”
Now 19-5 overall, the seventh-seeded Pioneers advance to district quarterfinals on Friday at second-seeded Plymouth Whitemarsh. Lower Merion (18-8 overall) drops into the consolation bracket, and the 10th seeded Aces will host No. 18 Central Bucks East on Friday.
“This rivalry has a kind of weird ebb and flow,” said Lower Merion head coach Greg Downer. “Sometimes the games are tight and sometimes they aren’t. Both teams are very dynamic offensively and tonight was (Conestoga’s) night. They outplayed us.”
It started out as a clash played at the lofty level you would expect between two of the better teams in the Central League. But at some point early in the second half, the Pioneers started to pull away and the Aces had no response.
“We had a great game plan, and we had a week to prepare for this,” said ’Stoga senior Charlie Martin. “I just think everyone was so ready heading in.
“The rest of the seniors and I felt we had to win this one, we were ready, and the rest of the guys followed.”
In front 35-28 at the half, Conestoga took command at the start of the third quarter thanks to a steal by Milton Robinson and an assist to Martin for the bucket, the foul, and the free throw. A few seconds later, Martin knocked down one of his four 3-pointers. In all, the 6-foot-4 forward scored eight points in the opening 84 seconds, and the Pioneers had a 43-30 lead.
“It was a credit to Charlie, but also the other guys who set screens and got him the ball,” Troy said.
“We knew no lead was safe, so we kept attacking,” Martin added. “They couldn’t stop one of our plays, so we just kept running it and it led to easy buckets.”
That’s about the time Lower Merion began employing a full-court press, but Conestoga handled it to near perfection, and the lead grew to 17 heading into the final period. Martin ended up scoring 11 of his game-high 25 points in the quarter, which is just one-point off his career best.
“We knew they would come out and pressure us and that we had to turn that pressure into points, and we were able to do that,” Troy said.
“We got down 13-15 and we decided to put it all out there with our press,” Downer explained. “We didn’t think we could get back into the game any other way.”
For the game, the Pioneers ended up connecting on 30 of 49 shots from the field for 61 percent. Angus Mayock chipped in 17 points and Robinson added 13 for ’Stoga, who is now assured the program’s fourth straight trip to the state tournament. That validates an impressive regular season, where the Pioneers captured the Central League title.
“It was one of our main goals this year,” Troy said.
“I think we played tonight more like what we did during the regular season. We kind of got back to who we are. We always preach that the open man gets the ball, and I thought we did a very good job of being unselfish, and then we knocked down shots. When you shoot like that, it really means you did a good job passing and sharing the ball.”
Six-foot-5 senior Terrell Jones paced the Aces with 19 points, while teammates Jack Forrest (14) and Steve Payne (13) also chipped in. But Lower Merion turned it over 14 times, and had all kinds of trouble containing the Pioneers, especially in the second half.
“We missed some defensive assignments, but all of the credit goes to (Conestoga),” Downer said. “They played very well.”
Conestoga’s performance was a complete departure from its lackluster loss in the semifinals of the Central League Tournament just over a week ago against Strath Haven.
“It was great to have a week just to practice,” Troy said. “We refocused, got back to fundamentals, and it showed.
“We had a game plan we asked the kids to do, and I thought they executed it perfectly.”
Martin added: “The past couple years, we’ve lost in the Central League playoffs and we kind of let it fester. This year we said we are not going to let that happen. We were very focused.”
Conestoga 77, Lower Merion 57
LOWER MERION – Payne 4 5-5 13; Fennell 2 0-0 5; Morgan 0 0-2 0; Davis 1 1-1 3; Henry 1 1-2 3; Forrest 6 0-0 14; Jones 6 4-4 19. Totals 20 11-14 57.
CONESTOGA – Shapiro 4 1-1 11; Robinson 3 7-8 13; Martin 10 1-1 25; Lezanic 4 0-1 9; Schappell 1 0-1 2; Mayock 8 0-0 17. Totals 30 9-12 77.
Lower Merion 10 18 14 15 – 57
Conestoga 15 20 24 18 – 77
Three-pointers: Fennell, Forrest, Jones 3, Shapiro 2, Martin 4, Lezanic, Mayock.