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Staggs’ return all Ridley needs to reach title game

NEWTOWN SQUARE — Game-planning for a third meeting with Lower Merion in five days wasn’t easy for Mike Snyder, to say nothing of physically preparing his players for a seventh game in 11.

So with Ridley having split the opening home-and-home salvo against the Aces this week, it may have been a blessing in disguise that forward Ameer Staggs missed the first two installments.

Saturday made a compelling argument that Staggs’ presence made a pronounced difference.

The senior returned from a five-game absence to provide 14 points, 10 rebounds and an emotional boost to No. 3 seed Ridley in a 55-41 drubbing of No. 2 Lower Merion in the Central League semifinals at Marple Newtown.

The win earns Ridley (18-5) a third crack at hanging a league loss on Conestoga in Monday’s final (8 p.m., Harriton).

While Ridley won four of the five games that Staggs missed with a concussion — including a 56-42 handling of Lower Merion at home Tuesday — there’s no doubt that they found an extra gear with him in the lineup.

Save for some shoddier-than-usual execution from the free throw line in the fourth quarter, the Green Raiders played a largely flawless game. They outrebounded Lower Merion, 43-20. They held the Aces to single-digits in points in each of the first three quarters. And Ridley got seven players involved in the offense in the first two quarters, running out to a 26-13 lead after a ruthlessly efficient first half.

The nexus of that was Staggs and Julian Wing. Staggs’ return gave Snyder a new wrinkle — the ability to play a big lineup featured those two forwards plus Justin Dawson, who deputized excellently while Staggs was out.

Their athleticism and length kept the Aces off the boards and presented too many scoring options for the Aces to contain once Brett Foster’s drive-and-kick game got moving.

Still, the most impressive facet of the Green Raiders’ domination came on the defensive end, where Wing thoroughly muted Penn-bound forward Jule Brown.

The lanky, bespectacled Brown missed his first nine looks from the field, plus two free throws. His first points came with 55 seconds left to play … or about 11 seconds before Staggs headed to the bench for the final time, lavished by a standing ovation from the Ridley cheering section for a job comprehensively done.

Staggs was just the help man, though, with Wing primarily tasked with frustrating Brown, a job he couldn’t have done better.

“I just looked at his belly button, and just go where he went and not foul when he went up for a shot,’ Wing said.

“We have good defenders, so we’re just trying to man them up one-on-one and not foul and (there’s) some help defense on him,’ Snyder said. “Make him earn all his points from the floor and not the foul line.’

It wasn’t just that Ridley bounce-passed and mid-ranged Lower Merion into submission, beating the myriad zone and full-court press looks Gregg Downer diagrammed. It’s that they held on with relative comfort to a lead that stretched as large as 19 points when Ryan Bollinger (nine points) hit a pull-up jumper and got fouled early in the fourth quarter.

Ridley went up double-digits at 24-13 late in the second quarter thanks to two Foster free throws, then never led by less than 10 from there on out.

Snyder’s team maintained relative calm by walking the fine line between slowing the game down and losing momentum, between selective aggressiveness and idle time-wasting. Foster (10 points, seven rebounds, four assists) and others had their brief dribbling exhibitions to burn clock. But they committed just nine turnovers, and when shots presented themselves, the Green Raiders took (and often, buried) them.

Combined with their landslide edge on the glass, there was no way back for Lower Merion.

“A lot of games, we’ve been having a lead, we know how to keep the ball, not turn the ball over and keep playing hard,’ Staggs said. “… We played as a team, played hard and hustled.’

The flipside was true for Lower Merion, who appeared overmatched and not up for the fight from the start. Their 13 first-half points were due almost exclusively to three 3-pointers from Corey Sherman, who finished with 14 points. When Sherman cooled off after the break and with Brown still trying in vain to find his game, Steve Pendleton supplied all 12 of his points on heady drives to the hole.

But they simply had no answer for the Green Raiders, who killed off the game quickly and cleanly.

“We’re just hustling hard and doing what coach tells us every day in practice,’ Wing said. “Keep working, go for loose balls and just keep fighting.’

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