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For Lower Merion’s Aces, the battle cry was ‘Never Say Die’

Ardmore >> It took a 51-point effort from Neshaminy’s Chris Arcidiacono in a double-overtime contest to end Lower Merion’s 2017-18 season, a campaign in which the Aces continually overcame adversity.
The morning after Lower Merion’s 88-87 double-overtime loss to Neshaminy in the second round of the PIAA 6A state tournament Wednesday night, a game in which Arcidiacono scored a school record 51 points, LM head coach Gregg Downer reflected on the Aces’ 2017-18 campaign.
“This was a team that never quit,” said Downer. “They learned the meaning of, ‘We not me.’”
At the very beginning of the season, the Aces lost one of their starters, junior guard Theo Henry, to a navicular fracture, and he was out for the season. Star junior guard Steve Payne lost his father just before season tryouts.
Yet the Aces persevered, winning their second straight Central League title Feb. 16, then finishing third at the District 1 tournament and wrapping up their eighth consecutive PIAA state tournament berth – currently the longest streak among District 1 6A teams. Lower Merion finished its season with a 24-6 record and their first trip to the PIAA Sweet 16 since 2014, one year after the Aces’ last PIAA state title.
“To have overcome the adversity that we’ve faced this season, and to have accomplished what we have so far, I think is exceptional,” said Downer last week. “These are coachable, hard-working, invested kids that want to win, and they keep performing with the ‘Next Man Up’ mindset.”
Wednesday evening, Arcidiacono, a 6-foot-4 senior point guard and the younger brother of former Villanova star Ryan Arcidiacono, was held scoreless in the first quarter, by which time the Aces held an 18-11 lead. But he exploded in the final five periods, nailing six treys and going 19-for-22 from the free throw line.
Arcidiacono hit crucial treys twice late in the game to keep Neshaminy alive. With Neshaminy trailing 66-63 and 20 seconds left in regulation, he nailed a three to send the game into overtime. Neshaminy trailed 74-71 with 15 seconds left in the first overtime when Arcidiacono tied it again a three, to send the game into a second overtime.
Meanwhile, Lower Merion came up with some explosive offense of its own against Neshaminy. Aces’ 6-foot-5 junior guard Jack Forrest scored 36 points, and Payne chipped in with 21.
“Jack is a dynamic scorer, a rising star who will be one of the top players in District 1 next year,” said Downer. He’s a great kid, and a great student. He works hard with his basketball and books.”
Payne was the star of the Aces’ heart-stopping 88-86 overtime win against Manheim Township in the first round of the PIAA 6A state tournament four days earlier, scoring the game-winner on an acrobatic layup. Payne finished that night with 26 points, 18 of them after halftime, and converted seven consecutive free throws in the fourth quarter and overtime.
“Steve likes the bright lights and does not shy away from big moments,” said Downer. “He’s quick and dynamic, and plays all phases of the game, including defense and rebounding – he wants to be great player and works hard at it.”
Against Manheim, the Aces fell behind by seven points in the second quarter, but 6-foot-1 junior guard Julian Hairston came off the bench and hit a trio of treys to help Lower Merion’s comeback.
Forrest and Payne highlight a strong junior class that will be returning to the Aces next winter, but Downer also praised the contributions of the Lower Merion seniors to the 2017-18 LM squad.
“Our seniors have great character,” said Downer. “They did a great job of buying in to our culture – they were kids that cared about, ‘We not me.’
Following Wednesday’s double-overtime loss to Neshaminy (19-10), the ninth seed in District 1 and a team that that the Aces had beaten 73-64 earlier this season, Downer spoke to his team in the locker room at Council Rock South High School.
“I told the players that we [the coaches] were proud of them and that we loved them,” said Downer. “This was a very difficult loss to accept, with several questionable calls, but we will always be family and we have many fond memories to remember.”

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