How sweet it is! The Aces used a 14-2 run at the close of the first half to overcome an 11-point deficit and held off previously-undefeated New Castle 67-63 to earn a trip to the PIAA State Finals. LM will take on Chester on Saturday night at 8 PM in Hershey.
BJ Johnson '13 led all scorers with 24 points, playing one of his most complete games of the season. The 6'7 senior collected ten rebounds, dished out five assists and hit a huge three to fuel the Aces' decisive first-half surge. Yohanny Dalembert '13 came up big again, finishing with 15 points and 15 rebounds. Raheem Hall '13 (13 points, 5 assists) and JaQuan Johnson '14 (12 points, four steals) keyed the Aces' lethal transition attack, and helped pressure New Castle into 21 turnovers. Justin McFadden '14 returned to the floor after a foot injury in the Harrisburg game and contributed outstanding hustle and defense to go along with four points. Corey Sherman '15, Baird Howland '13 and Jule Brown '15 also saw action.
Wednesday's contest was a roller-coaster ride of blistering runs and intense action. The Red Hurricanes - athletic, hard-nosed and relentless -- struck first, racing out to an early 7-2 lead and controlling the opening frame. Midway through the second quarter, New Castle led 26-15 and looked primed to extend their advantage with Dalembert headed to the bench with two fouls. But Johnson hit a trey to spark the Aces' comeback. Over the next eight minutes, LM outscored New Castle 28-6 thanks to a stifling press and a punishing fast-break, punctuated by a rim-rattling jam by Hall.
But New Castle would not go down easily. The Red Hurricanes -- champions of District 7 and winners of 57 of their last 58 games -- showed their mettle with an 11-0 run of their own to tie the game at 43 towards the end of the third. The Aces regained their composure, however, and scored the next four points in the frame.
In the fourth, the Aces led by as many as nine late and made enough free throws to hold off the Red Hurricanes in the final minutes. When the final buzzer sounded, the Dawg Pound streamed onto the floor in celebration of a remarkable, extraordinarily rare achievement -- a state final appearance for the second year in a row and the fifth back-to-back finals appearance in program history. The last time it happened -- in 2006 -- the Aces defeated Schenley for the title in Hershey.
Those who made the trip to Williamsport on Wednesday night were part of a memorable evening of high school basketball in a truly incredible environment. The Williamsport High School gym was packed to the tops of the rafters, with some sections of standing-room only. The noise was deafening with a spirited, back and forth between fans from both teams. New Castle's school district closed early on Wednesday and hundreds of Red Hurricanes faithful filled the gym hours before the game began. The Dawg Pound, more than 300-strong, once again proved why it is the best student section in the state, controlling the action from the stands once the game began, fighting hard in hostile territory.
The noisy wooden bleachers, the incessant roar of the crowd, the interplay between communities from opposite ends of the state was decidedly old school. In LM's first glory era of the 1930's and 1940's, the Aces' strongest competition always came from the west. The legendary Bill Anderson led his LM squads to stirring state title victories against teams like Sharon and Farrell with guys named "Dutch" and "Greer." Back then, LM carried the flag of the Philadelphia region against the tough, proud coal and steel towns of the Alleghenies that once made up Pennsylvania's hoops heartland. In recent years, LM has found itself in the "western" bracket of the state playoffs, playing teams from communities like Erie, Pittsburgh and New Castle once again and rekindling memories of a golden, bygone era. It was an era when communities caravanned for hours to some far-flung outpost for the chance to see their boys have it out on the hardwood - to prove for at least one more year where the balance of basketball power in Pennsylvania resided.
Some seventy years later, on a cold night in an old steel town, score one for the boys from the east.