Lower Merion wraps up 8th consecutive state berth with win vs. Conestoga

Lower Merion >> A few minutes after Lower Merion wrapped up its eighth consecutive PIAA state tournament berth (currently the longest streak among District 1 6A teams) with its 76-69 District 1 6A playoff win against Conestoga Tuesday, LM head coach Gregg Downer reflected on the grit of this year’s Aces’ squad.

“To overcome the adversity that we’ve faced this season, and to be 32 minutes from [the district semifinals at] Temple, I think is exceptional,” said Downer.
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 (21-4, 13-3) persevered, winning their second straight Central League title Feb. 16, then four days later defeating Conestoga at Bryant Gymnasium to wrap up a state berth.

Friday, the No. 3 seed Aces will host sixth seed Pennridge in the District 1 quarterfinals. Pennridge edged No. 22 seed North Penn, 43-41, to advance to the quarterfinals and earn its first PIAA state bid since 2015.

In order to wrap up their eighth straight PIAA state tourney berth Tuesday, the Aces were facing a 14th-seeded Conestoga team that had beaten them twice this season, a 62-57 defeat Dec. 19 and a 65-61 loss Feb. 2. But Tuesday night, Lower Merion came out smoking in the second quarter, building a double-digit lead and staying on top the rest of the evening.

The first quarter was a back-and-forth affair that featured 11 lead changes. But in the second quarter, the Aces got rolling, building a lead by winning some spirited battles for loose balls and getting scoring underneath from a pair of 6-5 juniors, Josh Martin and Jack Forrest.

“We came out tonight with a lot of extreme energy,” said Forrest, who finished with 23 points. “We knew how hard Conestoga plays and how explosive they are. We were talking with each other on the court, communication with each other on defense, getting switched a lot.”

By halftime, the Aces held a 39-29 halftime lead. They built a 49-33 lead two minutes into the third period when Forrest nailed a trey from the left corner. Forrest and LM senior guard Harrison Klevan each hit on a pair of treys in the third quarter.

“We were hitting a decent number of 3’s in the third quarter, and getting out on transition well,” said Downer. “Conestoga was struggling against our box-and-one a little.”

Helping the Aces’ defense was the rebounding of Martin, who pulled down 11 boards.

“Josh is a big playmaker for us – we need him,” said Payne. “He’s our big guy who changes the game. He does all the dirty work. He rebounds, he scores the ball. He does it all.”

Martin said, “I do what the team needs me to do. If I have the chance to score the ball I am going to take it. This [win] was really important. If we would have lost, we would need to win two more games to try to get the state bid.”

Midway through the third quarter, Conestoga began to come back. Led by the penetration and scoring of junior Milton Robinson, who converted five field goals in the third quarter, Conestoga had cut Lower Merion’s lead to 56-47 late in the third period.

“I don’t think our defense was good enough in the first half,” said Conestoga head coach Mike Troy. “But then we played hard in the second half. You have to give credit to Lower Merion – we’ve gone back and forth [at Districts] the last five years.”
Each of the last five years, Conestoga and Lower Merion have faced each other in the District 1 tournament.

Last year, host Conestoga defeated LM in the second round of Districts, 77-57. In 2016, host LM defeated the Pioneers in the district quarterfinals, 68-45. In 2015, the Aces defeated host Conestoga, 46-43 in Districts, and in 2014, LM lost to host Stoga, 68-60, in the district quarterfinals.

Troy smiled and said, “It seems like the basketball gods have deemed it that, every year, we have to play Lower Merion at least three times a season to determine who’s better.”

Lower Merion prevailed Tuesday with a balance of scoring – the Aces had five players in double figures for only the second time this season. In fact, those five players combined for all of Lower Merion’s scoring Tuesday night. Junior guard Darryl Taylor chipped in with 14 points, Klevan had 13 (including four treys), Martin talled 12 and Payne poured in 14 points.

Forrest said, “At the beginning of the season, Steve [Payne} and I were the primary scorers, but everyone’s been stepping up as the season went on.”

For Conestoga Tuesday, Robinson led all scorers with 25 points, while junior guards Zach Lezanic and Shane Scott combined for 23 points. Senior 6-4 forward Charlie Schappell scored 11 points, and junior 6-5 forward Evan Medley chipped in with eight points. Friday, the Pioneers will host No. 22 seed North Penn in the 9th-10th playback bracket.

“It will be a test of our character, to see how we come out on Friday night,” said Troy.

Lower Merion 76, Conestoga 69
CONESTOGA (69): Scott 4 1-2 10, Lezanic 5 2-2 13, Robinson 8 9-11 25, McFillin 0 0-0 0, Medley 4 0-1 8, Martin 1 0-0 2, Schappell 5 1-2 11, Brace 0 0-0 0, Erickson 0 0-2 0, Totals 27 13-20 69.
LOWER MERION (76): Payne 3 7-8 14, Forrest 10 1-2 23, Taylor 4 5-10 14, Robinson 0 0-0 0, Klevan 4 1-2 13, O’Connor 0 0-0 0, Morgan 0 0-0 0, Martin 5 2-3 12. Totals 26 16-25 76.
Conestoga      19 10 18 22 – 69
Lower Merion 18 21 19 18 – 76
3-point goals: Scott, Lezanic, Payne, Forrest 2, Taylor, Klevan 4.

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