The margin for error in the Central League playoffs is razor-thin.
Take a look at Lower Merion, which enters Sunday’s semifinal against Penncrest (4:00 PM, Harriton HS) on a five-game winning streak. The Aces, which earned the No. 2 seed in the Central with a 13-3 record (15-7 overall), beat regular-season champ Conestoga and the No. 3 seed Penncrest to begin that run, though each was about as close as it gets -- Lower Merion won both games by identical 58-56 scores.
So despite holding wins over the other three playoff teams, the Aces know they don’t hold any more of an edge than any of their opponents.
“The four teams that go to the league semis, they all have a chance and our hope is to somehow survive and get to the championship,” Lower Merion coach Gregg Downer said. “And of course if you’re in the championship, anything can happen.”
One of the league’s traditional powerhouses, Lower Merion hasn’t won the Central League in three years, as Ridley has taken each of the last two titles.
If the Aces hope to get past the Lions and into Tuesday’s championship, they’ll have to limit the effectiveness of Penncrest junior Tyler Norwood. The do-everything 5-foot-10 guard is one of the favorites for the league’s MVP award; he scored 22 on Lower Merion the first time around.
“You have to be very aware of where he is at all times, and pay very close attention to him,” Downer said. “We learned a few things, having played them the first time and we’ll try to make some adjustments. But he’s very dynamic...he’s the type of guy that if you lose your focus for 60-90 seconds he can score 10 points and change the course of a ball game.”
Norwood had his quietest game of the season in Penncrest’s last game, a 43-28 win over Marple Newtown on Friday night, scoring 12 points though five of those came on free throws after the outcome was all but decided.
The Lions (16-6, 12-4) got key contributions from seniors Justin Ross (5-11), Chris Mills (6-2) and Mike Mallon (6-4) in the win, and they need those sort of whole-team efforts if they want to make any postseason noise.
“If we get the scoring from [Mills], scoring from Ross, we always get 10 or 12 from Mallon, I think we’ve got a nice recipe there as we go forward,” Penncrest head coach Mike Doyle said. “Now we believe these guys have the confidence, they can step up, guys make shots.”
Lower Merion will rely heavily on its two senior starters, 6-0 guard Noah Fennell, a 3-point specialist, and 6-4 wing Terrell Jones, who does a little bit of everything. After that it’s a deep sophomore class, including guards Stephen Payne, Jack Forrest, Theo Henry and Darryl Taylor, all of whom factor into the scoring column.
But this is that quartet’s first taste of postseason action, and it’s going to take them playing like upperclassmen for the Aces to get it done.
“It’s going to take defense and rebounding and pressure foul shooting, that would be my opinion,” Downer said. “Today’s game is very 3-point oriented, also, so to me it’ll come down to who’s playing the best defense, who’s rebounding the best, who’s making their pressure free throws and who’s winning the ‘3’ war, those are my four areas of emphasis.”
Game One: 1) Conestoga vs. 4) Strath Haven (2:30 PM)
After a close two point loss to Lower Merion back on January 27, the Pioneers have caught fire, winning five straight games as they head into the playoffs as the Central League’s number 1 seed.
Head coach Mike Troy thinks his team is playing its best basketball headed into the most crucial part of the season.
“We’ve been improving all year along and we wanted to make sure we were peaking come playoff time, we’ve played very well the last four games,” Troy said.
Led by a stellar backcourt of sharpshooters, namely Chuck Martin, Scott Shapiro, and Zach Lezanic, the Pioneers will look to use their edge in the backcourt to get the upper hand over Strath Haven in a game of contrasting styles.
Strath Haven comes into the playoffs on a bit of a sour note, coming off three straight losses in the league, qualifying for the playoffs via tiebreakers. When it comes to the Panthers, all eyes will be on dominant 6-foot-9 big man John Harrar. The Panthers center is a force to be reckoned with on the inside, and should have a great battle with Pioneers’ forward Angus Mayock in the interior,
“John Harrar is a beast,” Troy said. “You’ve got to be able to control the defensive boards against them because he can really hurt you.”
In the first meeting between the teams, Conestoga won 52-47 on their home floor, despite 20 points from Harrar.
“In the first game, I thought we did a nice job guarding him, he ended up fouling out late in the game, and he worked hard for his 20 points but give him credit because he’s a heck of a player,” Troy said.
The keys for the Panthers will be both consistency and limiting turnovers, both of which have hurt them down the stretch run. For Strath Haven to pull off the upset, it will be the auxiliary scoring from fellow big man Cooper Driscoll on the inside.
Driscoll and Harrar will have to dominate the interior to overcome the perimeter advantage the Pioneers have, or else it could be a long afternoon for the Panthers.