Marquis Tomlin (above) had 24 points as Penncrest outlasted Lower Merion to reach the Central League championship. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
WALLINGFORD –– The first time Penncrest faced Lower Merion, Mike Doyle admitted, his team wasn’t ready. Hence the 24-point January defeat, by far the Lions’ worst of its five this season.
“The moment was just too big for us,” Doyle said. “We weren’t ready for it. But I think we’ve matured.”
If Monday night was any indication, Doyle’s thoughts are correct. A day short of four weeks after getting blown out by Lower Merion, Penncrest took the court against Gregg Downer’s bunch in a Central League semifinal at Strath Haven and did its best to return the favor.
The final score of Penncrest’s 56-48 victory doesn’t tell nearly the whole story of how Doyle and the Lions finally got past Lower Merion for the first time in any situation, regular season or playoffs, since 2013-14.
How the third-seeded Lions jumped out to a 30-10 lead on the second-seeded Aces, spending the first 15 minutes landing shot after shot against an Aces squad that played shell-shocked, air-balling shots and committing uncharacteristic turnovers.
How Penncrest (19-5) hit five first-half 3-pointers while Lower Merion (17-6) went until the third quarter before it finally connected from deep. How senior guard Marquis Tomlin and crew handled Lower Merion’s press with ease, creating 3-on-2 and 2-on-1 opportunities which resulted in open looks for Tomlin (24 points) and sophomore Ben Stanton (12 points), or driving lanes for sophomore guard Saahir Lee (13 points).
“We came out hot, early, and I just think we put the pedal to the metal,” said Stanton, who connected twice from deep on the evening.
“It took a little bit to realize that they’re not there today,” said Tomlin, who had the Lions’ other four triples. “And we had to keep going off on them, because you can’t let up on a team like that.”
“We just decided we’re just attacking, we’re not back on our heels anymore,” Doyle said. “it’s like let’s go –– it’s partially my fault, I was holding Saahir and Marquis back, now it’s like just go.”
By the end of the third quarter, Penncrest’s lead was 42-25, and it looked all but certain that the Lions would finally shake the LM curse, getting past the team that had beaten them not just in every regular-season matchup the previous six seasons, but in numerous Central League and District 1 playoff opportunities.
Doyle’s son, Mike Doyle Jr., was a junior on the Lions the last time they beat the Aces. The younger Doyle is now out of college, spending his first year as a graduate assistant with La Salle University.
“We’ve lost probably the last five years, six of the last seven years, it’s been a while,” Mike Doyle Sr. said. “Not only the Central League playoffs, but if we didn’t play them in the Central, we lost to them in districts. There were two years where we were still 4A, and we met them in the first round, second round of districts.
“This was a big one to beat them in [the] postseason, because they’re the benchmark.”
The Aces had a bit of fight left in them, however, the press finally getting to the Lions in the fourth quarter, a couple 3-pointers finally falling. LM got within six points of Penncrest, down 14-of-18 foul shooting in the fourth quarter was enough for the Lions to hang on.
Lower Merion got 18 points and 13 rebounds from sophomore big man Demetrius Lilley, but poor outside shooting (3-20 3FG) and foul shooting (5-12 FT) did the Aces in.
“To finally get past (Lower Merion), it feels great,” Tomlin said, “but we’ve got one more.”
They’ll face fourth-seeded Haverford High, which upset top-seeded Garnet Valley, in Tuesday night’s championship game at Harriton HS (7:30 PM). It’s a coaching rematch of the last time Penncrest won the Central League, in 2010, when Doyle’s Lions played Ridley when Keith Heinrichs, now with the Fords, was at Ridley.
There were plenty of cheers from the Penncrest side when the Haverford win was announced to the crowd during a timeout in the final 30 seconds, the Lions finding out they wouldn’t have to go up against a team that went 20-2 during the regular season in the championship. Instead, they get the Fords (15-9), who’ve won nine of their last 10, the only loss coming to new Suburban One Conference champ Pennridge.
Penncrest won the regular-season matchup, 51-49 on Jan. 9.
“They’re the hottest team in the league by far –– they beat Garnet Valley now twice, Lower Merion twice,” Doyle said. “We beat them [...] if it was more than one possession the whole game, I don’t think so. It’s going to be crazy, it’s going to be crazy.”
Penncrest: 15 | 16 | 11 | 14 | 56
Lower Merion: 6 | 8 | 11 | 23 | 48
Penncrest: 16-34 FG, 6-15 3PT, 18-24 FT
Lower Merion: 20-55 FG, 3-20 3PT, 5-12 FT
Penncrest: Tomlin 24, Lee 13, Stanton 12, Carroll 4, Atkinson-Boyer 3
Lower Merion: Lilley 18, Simples 10, Gribbin 6, Shippen 5, Wright 3, Chestnut 3, Rothman 2, Cook 1