The Aces effectively ended any and all debate about Central League supremacy Wednesday night, downing Springfield 66-55 in the 2nd round of the PIAA playoffs. It was the fourth meeting of the season for the two rivals, with LM taking three out of four games, including both playoff contests. Two weeks ago, the Aces defeated the Cougars 57-50 in the third round of District play. With the win, Lower Merion (25-6) moves on to face Lancaster McCaskey, the fourth seed from District 3. The game will be played Saturday, 3/18 at 2:30 PM at the Reading Geigle Complex.
For many of the Aces Nation faithful, the fourth Springfield match-up was viewed with great caution. The Cougars had played Lower Merion tight throughout the season, and boasted Richmond-bound big man Dan Geriot in the middle, a 2000 point scorer whom the Aces had been unable to fully contain in previous games. Springfield framed the contest as a grudge match and opportunity for revenge - in a Delco Times report on Tuesday, Cougars players said they had been looking forward to "ending [the Aces'] season" ever since they saw the possibility for a match-up in the PIAA brackets.
But none of it seem to matter much to the boys in Maroon and White.
Battle-tested from big games against Plymouth Whitemarsh and Chester, the Aces appeared confident and calm as they methodically built and sustained a working margin. After a tight 13-13 first quarter, the Aces got hot, with Peter Lucas, Arian Thompson and Ryan Brooks drilling threes and Eric Barefield finding gaps in the Springfield 2-3 zone, getting to the basket for a layup and feeding Garrett Williamson on a spectacular alley-oop in transition. The Cougars made a run to close the lead to 33-28 at the half, but the Aces had issued notice that they were prepared to play at different speeds, make shots and of course, defend with abandon.
Once again, Ryan Brooks drew the tough assignment of defending Springfield point guard Frank McKnight. Once again, Brooks limited the high-scoring junior to well below his season average. McKnight finished with nine on the night and one made three. A traditionally dangerous team from the perimeter, Springfield had three total makes from beyond the arc, a credit to the Aces' swarming defense. Adam Ellison, Jon Gray and Garrett teamed up to keep Geriot from dominating the interior. Although the 6'8 senior finished with 21 points - the Aces made him work for every shot and cleaned up the backboards to limit his second-chance opportunities. Geriot was the only Springfield player to reach double figures in scoring.
The Aces carried a 4 point margin into the 4th, and opened the scoring in the final frame on a driving layup by Brooks. Up six, the Aces used two consecutive blocked shots by Williamson (13 points, 10 rebounds, 6 blocks) to retain possession and take precious time off the clock, forcing the Cougars to come guard them as they maneuvered in a 4-corner spread offense. With Springfield out of their zone and forced to play man-to-man, the Aces used their superior quickness to seal the game. Brooks (20 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists) and Barefield (12 points, 5 assists) drove to the basket at will, finishing layups or playing keep away as seconds ticked off the clock. In what was clearly the play of the game, and representative of the Aces' no-nonsense attitude, Garrett used a quick first step to get by his man, drove the lane and rose up for a thunderous two-handed jam over two Cougar defenders. Goodnight, Springfield. Hello, quarterfinals.
Solid free-throw shooting, including a stellar 8-8 performance by Barefield, secured the final margin. Once again, the Aces received major contributions from Lucas, who drilled three 3s and finished with 11 points on the night. For the game, Lower Merion went 6-14 from beyond the arc.
As the clock was winding down, Coach Downer raised an Aces jersey in the direction of the Dawg Pound, punctuating the night with a salute to Aces Nation, who once again made their presence felt with a loud, large and dominant display of support.
LM: Brooks 20, Williamson 13, Barefield 12, Lucas 11, Robbins 5, Thompson 3, Gray 2
Springfield: Geriot 21, McKnight 9, Tulskie 8, Vontanhausen 7, Salerno 5, McGarrigle 3, Keenan 2