Tredyffrin >> The Lower Merion boys’ basketball squad rolled into Conestoga’s Gerry Gasser Gymnasium Tuesday evening with a perfect 14-0 Central League record and a healthy respect for the Pioneers, who lost to the Aces by only three points in the Kobe Bryant Gymnasium seven weeks ago.
“Our games against Conestoga are usually electric, very tight,” said Lower Merion head coach Gregg Downer. “It’s a good rivalry.”
The electricity was flowing Tuesday evening in the Aces’ 61-50 victory, and the first jolt was a 17-3 Conestoga run in the first six minutes.
“Conestoga always comes out hot, and they always play aggressive against us,” said Lower Merion senior forward Jack Forrest, who scored 29 points Tuesday. “In my four years here, they have a great record against us in this gym. They’re a great team, and they’re really well coached.”
The Pioneers’ Milton Robinon and Connor Steele combined for 12 of Conestoga’s 17 first quarter points; meanwhile, Lower Merion was missing underneath and not getting offensive rebounds.
“We’ve talked about finishing plays, whether it’s defensive rebounding or attacking the offensive glass,” said Conestoga head coach Mike Troy. “I thought we did a very nice job of [defensive rebounding] in the first half.”
Conestoga (13-8, 12-4) held a 25-13 lead three minutes before halftime, but then the Aces slowly began to climb back, thanks to some strong defense of its own. When Lower Merion’s Steve Payne scored four points just before halftime on a putback and a couple of free throws, it cut the Pioneers’ lead to 28-25 at halftime.
“We cut their lead pretty good in the second quarter, playing good defense,” said Downer. ”[Zach] Lezanic’s a tremendous player, but Steve Payne and Darryl Taylor did good defensive work on him tonight.”
Forrest said, “When we were losing 17-3, we knew we couldn’t get it all back at once, so our mindset was just one step at a time, get a stop and a bucket, then another stop and a bucket. We came back in the second quarter, and we had some confidence going in at halftime.”
Lower Merion started the third quarter with an 11-0 run, Payne started it with a drive to the basket; then after a Conestoga travelling violation, Forrest scored in heavy traffic to give the Aces their first lead of the night, 29-28.
Aces senior Julian Hairston tallied a trey off a steal; then following a Conestoga offensive foul, Forrest hit a jumper to make it 34-28. Conestoga missed from the outside, then Forrest made a nice turnaround jumper to give the Aces a 36-28 lead.
Then it was Conestoga’s turn to rally for a 14-3 run of its own, with a flurry of four treys (the Pioneers hit eight three-pointers Tuesday). Lezanic hit a three, then Robinson connected from the left corner for a trey that cut the Aces’ lead to 36-34. Lower Merion’s Forrest nailed a three from the top of the key, then Conestoga senior forward Evan Medley came right back with a trey from the left corner to make it 39-37, Aces. Following a Pioneer blocked shot, Lezanic scored from inside, and the game was tied, 39-39.
Robinson’s trey late in the third quarter gave the Pioneers’ a 42-39 lead. The senior forward finished the night with a team-high 18 points.
The Aces then went on a 10-0 run in the first two minutes of the fourth quarter, as Forrest nailed a trey following a steal, senior guard Matt O’Connor hit a three from the right corner and Taylor was perfect on two free throws to give the visitors a 49-42 lead.
“I think we got a little momentum, we got a little energy going in the fourth quarter,” said Forrest. “We finally starting getting stops, we dug in defensively; everyone was contributing and everyone was scoring.”
When Forrest hit his fifth trey of the night, it gave the Aces a 54-45 lead with less than three minutes left; and the visitors maintained their lead the rest of the way.
Forrest, who was sidelined with an injury earlier this season, has rebounded nicely since then, scoring his 1,000th career point in a 61-49 win against Haverford High Jan. 25, then four days later tallying 29 points (including six treys in the first half) against Upper Darby in the Aces’ 79-40 win.
“I’m starting to feel 100 percent; I’ve finally got my dunk back,” said Forrest, with a laugh.
For the evening, the Aces nailed 10 treys and went 11-for-12 from the free throw line.
Lower Merion (19-2, 15-0) has one remaining regular-season game, at Ridley Thursday. If the Aces win, they will finish with a 16-0 Central League record, which would automatically eliminate the fourth-place team in the Central League from the league playoffs, set up a second- vs. third-place semifinal, and allow the Aces to get a bye in the semifinals and advance to the league championship final.
“Give credit to Lower Merion tonight; I thought they did a very good job tonight for 32 minutes,” said Troy. “I think there were some stretches where we needed to execute better; but for the most part, this game was a three-point game either way – both teams are very good teams. Who gets the W just depends on who executes better that night.”
Lower Merion 61, Conestoga 50
Lower Merion 10 15 14 22 – 61
Conestoga 17 11 14 8 – 50
Lower Merion (61): Payne 3 4-4 11, Forrest 11 2-2 29, Hairston 1 0-0 3, Taylor 2 2-2 7, Goodman 1 0-0 2, O’Connor 2 0-0 6, Henry 0 3-4 3, Martin 0 0-0 0, Totals 20 11-12 61.
Conestoga (50): S. Scott 1 0-0 3, M. Scott 0 0-0 0, Robinson 6 4-5 18, Rush 1 0-2 2, Lezanic 4 0-2 9, Medley 1 1-2 4, Steele 3 1-2 9, Barczak 0 0-0 0, Brace 1 0-0 2, Martin 1 0-0 3, Totals 18 6-13 50.
Three-point field goals: Lower Merion – Payne, Forrest 5, Hairston, Taylor, O’Connor 2; Conestoga – S. Scott, Robinson 2, Lezanic, Medley, Steele 2, Martin.