By Danny Kane, Brady McHale and Ron Dagan
There have been more than a few defining playoff wins in Gregg Downer’s 20-year tenure as head coach of the Lower Merion Aces. Ranking them would be a difficult task. But for anyone who has followed the season -- and especially for those who made the trip to Marywood University -- the Aces’ 44-42 overtime thriller over Scranton clearly deserves a place on the list. To put it in perspective, the Aces were playing a 24-2 Scranton High squad that hadn’t lost since January 4th. They were playing a team that had scored 96 points on the same court five days earlier in a flawless District 2 championship performance. They were playing in the heart of enemy territory in front of opposing fans that had every reason to believe their Knights were a serious state title contender. Scranton returned four players from a team that had advanced to the state quarterfinals last season. Every news outlet from Philly to Lackawanna County predicted a Knights victory.
And, just for kicks, the hometown tournament directors decided to put Scranton’s fan section (dressed in celebratory St. Patrick’s day regalia) right behind the Aces bench, and pushed 60 Dawg Pound members into quarantine high above the stands on an indoor running track.
Ah, but there’s something about the Aces as underdogs -- especially as pissed off underdogs. They tend to bite back very hard.The Aces held the high-flying Knights to a season low point total, confounding them with a deliberate offensive attack and gritty, tough man-to-man defense that set the tone from the start.
In the first quarter neither team scored until a Raheem Hall drive got the Aces going at the 4:14 mark. The Knights scored their first basket nearly a minute later, but that would be it for their scoring in the opening frame. The Aces, behind stellar defense, and three more baskets from Hall led 8-2 going into the second quarter.
LM extended its lead in the second quarter thanks to contributions from reserve forward Yohanny Dalembert, who had seven points in the frame, including a beautiful 15-foot baseline jumper. Dalembert also blocked two shots and grabbed three rebounds during a six-minute stretch that saw the Aces’ advantage grow to ten points. At halftime, the Aces led 25-15. It was the lowest-scoring half of the season for Scranton.In the third, the Aces fended off an early surge by Scranton and got a huge lift from senior Matt McKenna. The crafty veteran guard threaded the Knights defense, creating long possessions for the Aces and delivering perhaps the pass of the day – a perfect full-court strike to Mike Buchwald who finished a lay-up in stride just after a Scranton score. At the end of the quarter, the Aces led 32-23.
While Scranton looked down and out, they had one, scintillating push left in them. The Knights’ leading scorer, 6’6 junior forward Terry Turner, attacked the rim and found his way to the free throw line four times in the first three minutes of the fourth quarter. Turner’s play ignited a 14-1 run that gave the Knights their first lead of the game and sent the Scranton fans into a frenzy. LM’s shots stopped falling; calls went the wrong way and just like that, the Aces’ remarkable day teetered on the edge of disaster.
Trailing 37-33, Hall plucked a Scranton ballhandler and converted a layup. Another Hall layup and two huge free throws by Darryl Reynolds gave the Aces a 39-37 lead. Turner answered with a tough runner. After an Aces’ turnover, the Knights had one more chance to tie in regulation, but Darryl Reynolds blocked Turner’s final shot attempt to send the game to overtime. On the Aces first possession of the extra period, McKenna drove baseline and was fouled. He converted one free throw, giving the Aces a 40-39 lead. The Aces had four consecutive stops, but could not convert on the offensive end. Scranton got a bucket from Turner at the 1:37 mark. After an empty Aces possession, LM fouled Malik Draper, who converted on 1 of 2 free throws. On the ensuing Aces possession, Mike Robbins ’12 was able to put back a missed Darius Hall layup to tie the game up at 42 apiece with 0:28 seconds to play. A missed floater by Scranton was snared by Reynolds who found Darius streaking up court. Darius fired to Raheem, who found Eric Green at the rim. The burly senior converted the biggest layup of his career with nine seconds on the clock, setting up the final sequence for Scranton.
Thankfully, a Knights three-point attempt at the buzzer fell short. The Aces and their fans stormed the in frenzied celebration. It was a remarkable, resilient victory for a team many had counted out several months ago.
It is now on to Round 2 for the Aces and a match-up with District 3’s Red Land High School. The Patriots are led by the 7’0 Steve Zack, a La Salle recruit and 6’10, D-1 recruit Mike Zangari. Red Land got to the 2nd round by routing Bartram. Gametime is 6 PM on Wednesday night at the Geigle Complex at Reading High School in Reading, PA.