In this, the tenth anniversary year of the Aces' last State Championship, the boys in Maroon and White are once again headed to Hershey thanks to a thrilling 70-65 victory Wednesday night. As they did ten years ago led by Kobe Bryant, the Aces earned their Championship bid by beating Chester in the State Semifinal at the historic Palestra. Lower Merion becomes the first team to make back-to-back Finals appearances since Glen Mills in '90 and '91 and only the 11th team in state history to accomplish the feat (Lower Merion last did it in '42 and '43).
In what will undoubtedly go down as one of the greatest comebacks in team history, the Aces' rallied from a 13 point deficit late in the third quarter, outscoring Chester 33-18 in the final frame. Led by a monster performance from senior Ryan Brooks, who tallied 26 points, 18 rebounds, 4 blocks, and 9-9 shooting from the free throw line, the Aces gained a sweet dose of revenge for three consecutive losses to the Clippers dating back to last year's State Final. They advance to play Schenley (Pittsburgh) who defeated Harrisburg in the other Semifinal game. The game will be played at 8 PM on Saturday at the Giant Center in Hershey.
The win was characteristic of Lower Merion's gritty, never-say-die play throughout the season. Down by one mid-way through the 2nd, Garrett Williamson picked up his third foul and went to the bench, forcing the Aces to play without their top rebounder and 2nd leading scorer for a significant stretch. Instead of just playing to keep Chester from extending their margin, Lower Merion took the lead thanks in part to a steal and layup by Arian Thompson on Chester's St. Joe's-bound point guard Darrin Govens, a driving layup by Eric Barefield, a huge three by Pete Lucas and the relentless play of Brooks. At halftime, the Aces led 33-27 and things were looking up.
In the third quarter, however, it was all Chester. The Clippers quickly erased their halftime deficit and ended the quarter on a 20-4 run, getting hot from the perimeter and earning ten trips to the charity stripe. Down ten to begin the fourth, the Aces needed to dig deep with the season on the line.
And, oh my, did they respond.
Using a full-court press, the Aces forced Chester into four consecutive turnovers and cut the deficit to 5 with just over four minutes to play. As Chester's shots continued to miss the mark, Lower Merion corralled the boards, allowing few second-chance opportunities and effectively limiting a traditional staple of the Clippers' success. On the other end, Brooks, Williamson and freshman Greg Robbins began to heat up with Ryan and Garrett (22 points, 10 rebounds, 4 blocks, 10-13 FT) driving to the bucket at will and Greg (15 points, 5-6 FT, 2 3's) torching the net from long range.
With three and half minutes to go in the fourth, the Aces took the lead for good as Williamson drove to the basket, was fouled and converted both free throws. The momentum had shifted and Aces Nation -- almost 3,000 strong -- began to sense that something special was happening. A minute later, with the Aces still up two, Williamson drove the lane and kicked to Robbins in the corner. Without hesitation, the freshman launched and found nothing but net. The three-ball proved to be the final dagger as brilliant free-throw shooting and solid ballhandling sealed the victory. The Aces shot 18-21 from the line in the 4th quarter alone, and 24-28 for the game.
The Aces performances were especially impressive on the defensive end. Arian teamed with Moore and Brooks to limit Govens, the 2005 PA Player of the Year, to only 11 points. Jon Gray and the Aces' forwards held Chester big man Shakiyl Reid in check - Jon came up with two big steals to start the game, earning one on an all-out dive for the ball. Pete Lucas limited high-flying point guard Karon Burton to just 13 points on the night - Burton had blitzed the Aces in the District final, tossing in the game-winning 3 at the buzzer in overtime. All told, it was Chester's lowest point output of the State Playoffs.
With sound of the final buzzer, the party at the Palestra was on. Aces Nation poured onto the floor, tossing Hershey kisses into the air as players, coaches, alumni, family and friends danced away years of frustration against a formidable and ever-worthy foe. It was a magical moment and a night to remember forever.
LM: Brooks 26, Williamson 22, Robbins 15, Lucas 3, Barefield 2, Thompson 2
C: Church 15, Govens 11, Burton 13, Flemming 11, Reid 8, Jones 5, Morales 2