Payne’s last shot gives Lower Merion the crown

LOWER MERION >> In a back hallway at Harriton High School Tuesday night, two players met and embraced, one wet from a celebratory dousing of ice water, the other’s face stained with tears.

In a tit-for-tat fourth quarter, those two players seemed intent on deciding a Central League championship by whomever had his hands on the ball last.

Steve Payne did.

The Lower Merion guard hit a runner high off the glass with 2.6 seconds left, one possession after Penncrest’s Tyler Norwood had tied the game in similarly spectacular fashion, as the Aces earned a 48-46 win for their second consecutive Central League championship.

The battle for a crown ultimately came down to the two stars, who led the way offensively. Norwood paced all scorers with 19 points, Payne with 18. Of the 20 points scored in the fourth quarter Tuesday, 15 were provided by the duo. From the time Harrison Klevan hit a 3-pointer to put Lower Merion up 43-39 with 4:39 left, the rest was up to Norwood and Payne’s personal game of one-on-one.

Lower Merion Steve Payne, left, puts up a shot against the defense of Penncrest’s Matt Arbogast. Payne hit the game-winning bucket with 2.6 seconds left in Lower Merion’s 48-46 win in the Central League final. (Digital First Media/Pete Bannan)

“I like that. I like the competitive nature,” Payne said. “Ty’s a great player. He gives me a great game every game. He’s a great point guard, he leads the team, he’s great. I love going against him. I love competing against him.”

“It’s hard because they are playing a box-and-1 with a guy coming at me,” Norwood said. “I can’t really go right back at him; I have to figure out how I’m going to get the ball. Playing against Steve for the past three years has been a battle. He’s a great player.”

Norwood, fighting through the faceguard he was constantly under, hit an and-1 to get Penncrest within 1 at 43-42. Payne drove to the bucket, then hit the front end of a one-and-one to stretch the lead to four, but Norwood would yet have his say. He sunk two at the line, then after Darryl Taylor bricked a front-end, Norwood charged down and hit an eight-foot floater with 31 ticks left.

“They know when the fourth quarter comes, I’m going to try to do what it takes to win the game,” Norwood said. “… Matt (Arbogast) played outstanding on the boards, Chris (Mills) played outstanding on the boards. It’s just one possession away, one shot away or one stop away. Collectively we played the best we could. It just came down to a last-second shot to overcome us.”

There was little doubt whose number Lower Merion would call the final time down the court. Payne held the ball at the top of the arc as the clock ticked under 10 seconds. He bounded to his right, past Justin Heidig and the help defense of Mills and laid one under the outstretched arm of Arbogast, off the backboard and in.

“I have the mindset where I think I’m the best player on the court, therefore I think the best player should have the ball,” Payne said. “It got to the last second, and that’s what happened. I got the ball, I made a tough shot. Great defense and it went in.”

“We knew he was getting the ball back,” Heidig said. “I didn’t want to foul and send him to the line, of course, with them being in the bonus. I knew I had Chris to my left. I sent him there. We were both there. He made a really tough shot. Credit to him.”

PHOTO GALLERY: Lower Merion vs. Penncrest

Mills dusted off his quarterback arm with a toss the length of the court on the ensuing inbounds, but it was broken up, queuing the celebrations for the Aces, who last year beat Penncrest with a buzzer-beater in the semifinals at this same gym before romping past Strath Haven in an uncontentious final. The Aces (20-4) have accounted for two of Penncrest’s losses this season.

Short of Payne’s emergence in the fourth, Penncrest (21-3) mostly stuck to its pregame talking points. Malcolm Williams blanketed Jack Forrest out of the game, the Aces’ leading scorer limited to five points and no 3-pointers. They closed out well on shooters, and while Klevan hit three triples to tally 13 points, the rest of the backcourt was limited to 1-for-9 shooting (though Taylor had eight points, six at the line). And Penncrest won the turnover battle, 10-6.

Penncrest’s Tyler Norwood hits a shot in the first quarter against Lower Merion Tuesday. Norwood led all scorers with 19 points, but Lower Merion scored a 48-46 win in the central League final. (Digital First Media/Pete Bannan)

About the only deviation from the plan was Josh Martin (four points, 10 rebounds, two blocks) getting the better of Penncrest’s bigs.

All-in-all, that was the recipe to follow to get past the Aces.

“We held them to 48 points. We did our jobs,” Heidig said. “They made a tough shot. Credit to them. They played a great game too. It was a great game and they’ll be talking about it for years.”

What Penncrest has successfully avoided all season cropped up in the fourth: The overreliance on Norwood that so categorized last year’s (albeit successful) districts run. Penncrest’s all-time leading scorer tallied 12 points in the second half. Williams stepped up with 11 points (plus six boards and three assists). But foul trouble limited Arbogast to just four points, all in the first quarter. Mills and Isaiah Rice hit big 3-pointers in the first half to send the game into the break even at 26, but they didn’t produce offensively after the break.

“We took what was on the (white) board in there and we put in on the court,” Norwood said. “We tried our best to copy it. Forrest is a great player. That’s an amazing job by Malcolm. … Their guys stepped up today. It’s a positive stopping him, but then we’ve got to stop the next guy up, and the next guy.”

But in the end, there was no stopping Payne.

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