Lower Merion rolls past Pennridge, advances to District 1-6A semifinals

LOWER MERION >> On a night when shots just were not falling for Pennridge, Tyrese Lewis could only feel that maybe a higher basketball power was at play.

“We just shot it and it really felt like the rim was not on our side. I guess Kobe (Bryant’s) energy was in here or something,” the senior said. “I don’t know, they just wasn’t feeling us.”

In the gym barring the hoops legend’s name, the Rams’ offense struggled to get anything going throughout Friday’s District 1-6A boys quarterfinal. Host Lower Merion, meanwhile had no such problem. The third-seeded Aces hit it early and often from long range, connecting on 10 3-pointers to roll past the No. 6 Rams 63-39 and reach the district semifinals for the second time in three seasons.

“I felt like it was just clicking,” Lower Merion junior Steve Payne said. “Yesterday we got a lot of extra shots in the gym. I feel like that gained our confidence. That really helped us out. So we just came into this game with a lot of confidence. We shot the 3-ball really well, helped us win.”

Payne hit a trio of threes — and also made all three free throws after getting fouled beyond the arc in the fourth quarter — to finish with game-high 21 points. Jack Forrest had a pair of threes in adding 19 points while Harrison Klevan drained a trio of treys in scoring 11 points, for Lower Merion (22-4), which heads to Temple University’s Liacouras Center Tuesday still in the hunt to claim the program’s first district title since that Kobe Bryant-led side in 1996.

“I think it’s a great accomplishment,” Lower Merion coach Gregg Downer said. “We have a lot of juniors on this team. We lost a starter before the season even started, we faced a lot of sickness, a lot of injuries so the adversity that we’ve overcome to get to Liacouras is impressive, something we’re very proud of.”

The Aces face No. 2 seed and defending district champ Abington — a 57-43 winner over No. 7 Norristown — at 6 p.m. in the first semifinal with top seed Plymouth Whitemarsh taking on No. 4 Central Bucks West at 7:30 p.m.

“It means everything,” Payne said of make the semis. “We put in so much work over the summer, we’ve been putting in work all summer, throughout all these months and it’s really paying off. It mean’s a lot.”

Pennridge, meanwhile goes into to consolation play after a frustrating night. The Rams (18-7) held the lead only once — 2-0 on a Mike Molettiere jumper — before that was quickly erased by the Central League champs knocking down three straight 3-pointers. Pennridge scored just 14 points in the first half and was held below 40 points for just the third time this season.

“I said boy, the rims seem tight for us and it seemed like it was like the ocean for them,” Rams coach Dean Behrens said. “Let’s give them credit, it’s a great win for them, they played great. They shot the ball extremely well.”

Pennridge tries to bounce back at home Tuesday against Norristown. Winner moves on to the fifth place game while the loser plays for seventh.

“I told the boys, we’re guaranteed three more games. Our goal is to get the fifth seed,” Behrens said. “So we’re kind of in the same spot we were in 2015, a couple of these guys have watched that team play where we lost a tough game at our place to Abington to get to Temple and our kids are disappointed because they wanted to go to Temple.”

Lewis was the only Ram in double-figures, scoring 10 of his 16 points in the third quarter while Lower Merion held junior Sean Yoder scoreless in the first half and three points total.

“(Darryl Taylor) did a good on Sean and I think their pressure did a goo job — we really were struggling bringing the ball up versus the pressure. This is what we worked on the last two days, basically. We were eyeing the ball, like we were just staring at the guy, we weren’t ball-faking, we didn’t hit the guy in the middle, guy wasn’t getting to the middle were he should of been. We were just out of sync with their pressure. Then we panicked when we beat it and we took a quick shot.”

A Forrest three-point play gave Lower Merion a 12-4 lead at 4:16 in the first quarter but a Lewis free throw had the Ram’s deficit at 15-9 at the end of the opening eight minutes. The Aces, however, began the second quarter with a 9-2 burst thanks to 3-pointers from Taylor, Forrest and Klevan to take a 24-11 lead.

“Downer actually said we’re probably one of his best 3-point shooting teams ever. So that’s a big statement right there,” Payne said. “So, we take pride in it and we just stay in the gym and keep working.”

A Payne basket gave the Aces their largest first-half advantage at 28-12 before Post made both ends of a 1-and-1 at 2:06 and Lower Merion went into the break up 28-14.

Lewis’ putback dunk in the third had the Rams within 12 but the Aces answered with eight of the next 10 points — Klevan and Forrest both hitting threes — to extend the lead to 18 at 36-18.

“It’s the energy in this gym, it’s a lot of energy. It’s a big basketball team, we had Kobe Bryant come here. So we come here, I don’t want to say we were nervous but it was a little shaky at first,” Lewis said. “But then we started to gain some confidence. But I’ll give it to Number 2 (Forrest), he was just hitting.”

Lower Merion twice led by 20 twice in the third, the second time at 47-27 after a Payne three. Lewis got inside for two, cutting the margin to 47-29 entering the fourth with a Ryan Warner trey to start the final quarter getting the Rams within 15.

But the Aces put things fully out of reach with a 10-0 run. Payne hit a three, then went 3-for-3 from the line after getting fouled on a three. Forrest followed a one-handed slam with two free throws at 5:32 to make it 57-32. Lower Merion’s biggest lead came at 61-33 after a Jared Robinson basket.

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