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Lower Merion loses cliffhanger to undefeated Wood in PIAA 6A state semifinal

Lower Merion – Just four days after capturing its first District 1 title since the days of Kobe Bryant, Lower Merion came within an eyelash of defeating Archbishop Wood, the ninth-ranked boys’ basketball team in the United States, in the PIAA 6A state semifinals Tuesday evening.

The Aces gave Archbishop Wood (19-0) an admirable battle at the Kobe Bryant Gymnasium, jumping out to an early 15-4 lead, and leading for much of the game. But in the end, the Vikings squeezed out a razor-thin 72-68 win.

Lower Merion head coach Gregg Downer said, “We try to say we don’t play for close losses, but I think it was a heck of a high school game, the [Pennsylvania] Eastern final that was really a two-point game, lots of back-and-forth. We played with a lot of grit and a lot of determination. I’m not into close losses but I’m very proud of these kids. There’s a lot of emotion in the air right now.”

Downer and the other Lower Merion coaches spoke to the team at length after the game.

“We [coaches] told the players that we were very proud of them; we didn’t think we would get much of a season in the pandemic, but we played 18 games and won the school’s first district title in 25 years,” said Downer. “We were a couple of minutes away from going to Hershey. It’s an emotional time right now with the end of the season, but this was a really fun group to coach. I think these players really believed in themselves; they really thought they could do it.”

In the first five minutes of Tuesday’s contest, Lower Merion built a 15-4 lead as senior forward Zack Wong hit a trio of treys. The Aces’ tight defense also forced several Wood turnovers and missed shots.

By the end of the first quarter, the Aces had five treys as junior 6-foot-9 junior center Demetrius Lilley and sophomore guard Sam Brown nailed three-pointers in the opening period, helping the hosts build a 21-12 lead.

“We were playing with a lot of confidence and we knew we had to make 10 threes to keep it close,” said Downer. “We thought we could stay with Wood if we traded threes for twos. We were very hot from [three-point territory], and playing really good basketball.”

Lower Merion senior point guard Sam Davison, referred to as “the engine of our team” by Downer, said, “We came out with confidence, we had a no-fear mentality. We pushed the pace, we got to our spots, we hit our 3’s.”

Archbishop Wood, led by 6-foot-3 senior guard Rashool Diggins (a University of Connecticut commit), began to connect on shots in the second quarter, and when Viking senior guard Jaylen Stinson stole the ball and drove in for a layup, it cut the Aces’ lead to four (26-22).

Lower Merion came right back, after calling a timeout with 5:55 to play before halftime. Lilley scored on a nice pass from Wong after the Aces broke Wood’s press, then following a Viking missed shot, Lilley dunked to give the hosts a 30-22 lead. Lilley finished the night with 25 points and 13 rebounds.

Then it was Wood’s turn to make a run, as its constant defensive pressure forced a couple of Lower Merion turnovers. With 3:07 to play before halftime, Stinson hit a trey to tie the score at 34-34. It was only the second time in the game that the score was tied (the other was at 2-2) – Lower Merion had held the lead the rest of the time.

The Aces went ahead 38-36 with 58.3 seconds left before halftime as Lilley drove underneath in heavy traffic twice for field goals. Following a Wood missed shot from outside, Lower Merion began a crisp sequence of passes that culminated with a trey from the left corner by Brown only a few seconds before the buzzer. The Aces led at the half, 41-36.

Davison said, “I’m proud of our guys – we gave it our best shot. We had the no-fear mentality, that’s what we lived on. Coach Downer told us before the game that we had to manage Wood’s big runs, their 6-8 point runs, and keep those to a minimum. We stayed in the game, we hung in there.”

A Lilley putback opened the third quarter, giving the Aces a 43-36 lead. But then Wood quickly went on a 7-0 run. Viking senior guard Marcus Randolph scored underneath in heavy traffic, the Aces missed from 3-point land, Diggins drove in for a layup, and following an unsuccessful LM dunk, Viking junior forward Mike Knouse hit a trey from the left corner to tie the score at 43-43 with 6:01 to play in the third quarter.

In the next four minutes, the Aces went on an 8-0 run of their own, highlighted by a trey by junior guard Jaylen Shippen, a drive by Davison, a field goal underneath by Lilley, and a bundle of Wood missed shots. With 2:01 to go in the third quarter, the Aces led the ninth-ranked team in the nation 51-43.

In the next 66 seconds, Wood went on an 8-0 run to tie the score at 51-51, capped by Viking senior forward Muneer Newton’s three-point play with 54.7 seconds left in the third quarter.

Downer said, “We had a couple of bad moments in the second half; little 60-90 second shifts where a six-point lead became a tied score.”

The Vikings took their first lead of the night on an intercepted pass and subsequent drive for a bucket, but the Aces came right back, breaking the Wood press and finding Wong alone underneath for a layup which tied the score at 53-53.

Early in the fourth quarter, Wood went ahead 59-57 on a Randolph dunk, but Davison broke free for a layup to tie the score at 59-59.

A couple of treys by Diggins and Randolph gave the visitors a 65-59 lead, but subsequent layups by Davison and Lilley kept Lower Merion within striking distance at 67-63 with 1:13 left to play.

With 25.6 seconds to play, Randolph hit both ends of a one-and-one to give Wood a 70-64 lead, but Shippen nailed a trey from the left corner to cut the Vikings’ advantage to 70-67. Shippen hit a free throw with 1.4 seconds left to bring the Aces to within two points, but when he purposely missed the second free throw to give the hosts a chance at a game-tying bucket, Wood came up with the ball.

The Vikings brought the ball inbounds by arching a long pass almost the entire length of the court. Randolph grabbed the ball and scored just before the buzzer to make the final tally 72-68.

For the Aces, the season was over.

Downer said, “We’ll be losing five seniors [Davison, Wong, and guards Jayden Morene, Phil Cook Jr. and Connor McCabe), and any time you lose a senior it’s painful, but these guys are good guys and they’re going to be successful.”

Davison said, “I’ll remember the bonds I made with these players, I’ll remember this group of guys, and the feeling of winning the district championship and storming the court. I love each and every one of them.”

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