Steve Payne (above) capped off a 19-point effort with a game-winning layup as LM won the Central League championship. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
When Lower Merion won the Central League championship a year ago, there was no need for any heroics, as the Aces took home a 22-point victory over Strath Haven in a game which was basically over midway through the third quarter.
Defending the title was not nearly so easy.
The league’s regular-season champion, Penncrest gave Lower Merion all it could handle on Tuesday night, in a game that was tied at the end of the second and third quarters, and tied with 30 seconds left after the Lions’ star senior Tyler Norwood finished a tough bucket in the lane.
But Lower Merion was not to be denied.
Junior guard Steve Payne’s drive to the hoop with under three seconds left proved to be the difference-maker, as the Aces came away with a 48-46 victory.
It’s the fifth Central League championship in the last seven years for Lower Merion (20-4), which has won 14 titles in 28 seasons under Gregg Downer.
Payne, one of many juniors that drive the LM train, got to play hero, putting a layup high off the glass and watching it fall through from the floor after absorbing some contact on the way there. That capped off a 19-point effort for the 6-1 guard, who also had nine rebounds and three assists.
“I have the mindset, I think I’m the best player on the court, therefore I think the best player should have the ball in his hand at the last second,” Payne said. “And that’s what happened, I got the ball, made a tough shot, great defense (but) it went in.”
“I think he’s our most dynamic player, you try not to overcomplicate things in that situation,” Downer said. “He’s a hard guy to keep out of the lane, and strong, and he made it.”
With Penncrest face-guarding LM junior Jack Forrest all night, limiting the D-I recruit to only five points on as many shots, the Aces’ other starters got it done. Junior forward Josh Martin was terrific on the glass, ripping down six of 11 rebounds on the offensive end, to go along with four points, two steals, two blocks and an assist.
The 6-5 Martin represents the only real interior presence on the Aces, and he was going up against a Lions frontcourt that features 6-4 senior Chris Mills, 6-4 junior Matt Arbogast and 6-3 junior Malcolm Williams, all notoriously tough rebounders and defenders. And while the three Penncrest bigs combined for 14 rebounds (9 offensive), there’s no doubt who the singularly most impact big man was on the court.
“I thought a lot of this would just come down to interior toughness,” Downer said. “Mills is one of the better athletes you’ll ever see, Arbogast jumps well and they’re both big, physical kids. They have us in the size department but it’s important that Josh is in there patrolling the rim and rebounding in particular.”
Lower Merion also got some clutch 3-point shooting from senior guard Harrison Klevan, something he’s becoming known for this postseason. Two days after the 6-0 guard knocked down three consecutive 3-pointers to close out the third quarter of the Aces’ semifinal win over Upper Darby -- easily the most decisive stretch of the game -- Klevan also gave LM momentum into halftime with a game-tying triple, and then hit another one early in the third quarter to put the Aces on top; he finished with 13 points.
“This team badly needs third-party scoring,” Downer said. “They did a great job covering Jack Forrest and one of the byproducts of covering (Forrest and Payne) so tightly is sometimes Klevan gets some open looks, and he’s been clutch all season, including tonight.”
Penncrest (21-3) was looking for its first Central League tournament title since 2010, when the Lions beat Ridley. The defending District 1 5A champions got 19 points from Norwood and 11 from Williams, but the rest of the Lions combined for only four second-half points.
Lower Merion doubled Norwood every time the 5-10 guard touched the ball, using a combination of Payne and fellow junior Darryl Taylor as primary defenders but never letting Penncrest’s all-time leading scorer come up for air for more than a second or two; all of Norwood’s points came either in transition/off second-chance points or by him hitting tough pull-up jumpers.
On Penncrest’s final inbounds play with 2.6 seconds remaining, Norwood was unable to get free; a full-court pass to one of his teammates didn’t result in a clean shot.
“I think they respect (Norwood) more than anybody,” Penncrest coach Mike Doyle said. “They were throwing two, three guys at him, and they were not going to let him beat them.”
The Lions still have plenty to play for this season; the top overall seed in the District 1 5A bracket, they’ll start that title defense next Wednesday against No. 16 Upper Moreland (9-13).
There’s not much time to feel sorry for themselves if they want to make noise in districts and potentially the PIAA state tournament.
“I tried to get to the point that it just doesn’t mean there’s going to be another happy ending, like last year, winning the districts, that we still have a lot of work together,” Doyle said. “ You have to get back up, take this hurt, take this pain...we are devastated.
“The message was, there’s no guarantees, but we do have a second chance.”
Lower Merion, the No. 3 seed in the District 1 6A tournament, has off until next Tues. (Feb. 20), when it will play the winner No. 14 Conestoga and No. 19 Cheltenham at home. A win there guarantees the Aces a trip back to the PIAA state tournament, where they were eliminated in the first round by District 11 champs Pocono Mt. West a year ago.