NETHER PROVIDENCE – It wasn’t until the clock hit 1.2 seconds left and Saahir Lee strode to the line that Penncrest coach Mike Doyle unclenched his shoulders and acknowledged the traveling support across the court.
Given the history between Penncrest and Lower Merion, you wouldn’t blame Doyle if he had waited until the bus pulled away from Strath Haven before he started to even consider decompression.
For the first time in 11 meetings, including each of the last four installments of the Central League postseason, the Lions harpooned their white whale with a 56-48 win over the second-seeded Aces.
“All the history, we remember it coming into the game,” Marquis Tomlin said. “But all that goes out the window when you start playing. … After the win, it starts to feel different because you remember all the times you lost to them, all the buzzer-beaters and really big losses.”
The win moves third-seeded Penncrest (19-5) into Tuesday’s final against another upset-artist, No. 4 Haverford (15-8), which downed top-seeded Garnet Valley 36-30 for its ninth straight win. Tipoff at Harriton is at 7:45.
Monday, the Lions used a torrid first half and just enough ice water in their veins late to snap a 10-game losing streak to the Aces, who have beaten Penncrest in the last two Central League finals.
Penncrest started on a 30-8 burst and led by 20 points in the third quarter. When Lower Merion’s run inevitably came, Penncrest did enough at the line, all 14 of its points in the final stanza at the charity stripe.
Tomlin was primarily responsible for the start. He erupted for a game-high 22 points, including 14 in the first half and four 3-pointers. The last, off a Ben Stanton feed in front of the Lower Merion bench, was the one that would lead the postgame highlight package.
“It’s probably one of the best feelings ever,” Lee said of the run. “The best thing to do at that time is keep our head, because we know games like this, especially playing Lower Merion, they can get back in like that. So we all just calmed down, relaxed, because everyone’s going to make a run.”
Penncrest was 6-for-13 from 3-point range, Stanton hitting two triples. And yet, thanks to three missed layups in the second, Lower Merion could feel fortunate retreating to the locker room down just 31-14.
The Aces’ fight back began with Demetrius Lilley. The 6-8 sophomore forward had his way in the post with 16 points and 14 rebounds. But his teammates often left him marooned defensively, and by the time the Aces started feeding him consistently, the deficit was too large to trade baskets.
Marquis Tomlin for 3!!! His 4th. Penncrest leads LM, 26-8. pic.twitter.com/Zg0sPOTKKz
— Matthew De George (@sportsdoctormd) February 11, 2020
Lower Merion’s long-range shooting deserted them. The Aces, without leading marksman Sam Brown due to injury, were just 3-for-19 from 3-point range. They had more airballs (four) than makes and were just 5-for-12 at the line. James Simples had 10 points before fouling out.
Stanton scored 12 points, and Lee added 15, including 7-for-10 in the fourth as the sophomore embraced the challenge of handling through LM’s press.
“With having Marquis and Aidan Carroll keeping my head together, I think it works,” Lee said. “I know I’m going to have turnovers and I might get down a little bit. But they stay on my side and tell me to keep my head in it because they know what I can do.”
For Tomlin, breaking a 10-game losing streak to Lower Merion feels amazing. Or it did, for about 10 minutes, until the switch flipped to Haverford.
“To finally get past it, it feels great,” he said. “But we’ve got one more.”