Marcus Randolph (above) scored 24 points to help Archbishop Wood stay undefeated. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Only after Rahsool Diggins laid the ball through the net as the final second ticked off the clock at Lower Merion could Archbishop Wood finally exhale.
The Vikings’ quest for a perfect season and a final championship to send their spectacular seniors off with was not to be denied. But the Aces came awfully close to ending the run one game short.
Diggins’ layup, off a court-length pass from Marcus Randolph that ran out the game’s final 1.4 seconds, gave Wood a 72-68 win at Kobe Bryant Gymnasium on an evening that looked for most of the game like host Lower Merion would pull the upset in a PIAA Class 6A semifinal.
“You’re trying to play a perfect 32 minutes against the ninth-ranked team in the country,” LM coach Gregg Downer said, “and I thought we played about 28 minutes of really good basketball.”
There’s no doubt it was about as entertaining a high school game as you’ll see during a pandemic, both teams worthy of the standing ovation the crowd of about a hundred people gave them after the final buzzer.
Even though Wood (19-0) was without one of its four Division I-bound seniors, Daeshon Shepherd, for the second consecutive game, the Vikings still had a clear edge in firepower heading into the matchup. Diggins (UConn), Randolph (Richmond) and Jaylen Stinson (James Madison) gave Wood three more D-I signees than LM had in its starting lineup, and aside from Lower Merion’s 6-foot-9 junior center Demetrius Lilley, Wood had a size advantage at every position.
But the Catholic League champs and prohibitive favorite in the state ran into a buzzsaw, as Lower Merion came out shooting 7-of-12 from 3-point range in the first half to go into the break up 41-36. The Aces were up 51-43 late in the third quarter when the Viking press bothered Lower Merion into a couple turnovers, helping the visitors even the score at 53 going into the final eight minutes.
Wood led for most of the closing frame, but it was never out of reach for Lower Merion.
Aces junior Jaylen Shippen cut it to a three-point game with under 10 seconds remaining, and Wood missed two consecutive 1&1s, with junior Tyson Allen grabbing an offensive rebound after the first. Vikings coach John Mosco made the choice to foul up 70-67 with under two seconds to play, and after Shippen made the first, his attempt to intentionally miss the second didn’t hit the rim.
Diggins’ layup, just ahead of the final buzzer, provided for the final score.
“The biggest play of the game, even though he missed the foul shot after, was Tyson’s rebound...that’s a big-time rebound,” Mosco said. “And (Muneer Newton) listened and we got the foul when we needed to. I don’t like to foul up three, but I took a shot and it worked out.”
Both teams had no shortage of contributors, as evidenced by the facts that all 10 starters scored in double figures.
For Wood: Randolph had 24 points and four assists; Diggins had 16 points, seven assists, five rebounds and three steals; Stinson had 12 points and three steals; Newton had 10 points and 11 rebounds; Mike Knouse had 10 points and two boards.
For Lower Merion: Lilley had 25 points and 13 rebounds, plus two assists; senior Zack Wong had 12 points and five rebounds, hitting three first-quarter 3-pointers; junior Sam Brown had 11 points, four rebounds, four assists and two steals; senior Sam Davison had 10 points and five assists; Shippen had 10 points and two assists.
“We try to say we don’t play for close losses, but I think it was a heckuva high school game,” Downer said. “Eastern final, really a two-point game, lots of back-and-forth, and we played with a lot of grit, a lot of determination...I’m not into close losses, but I’m very proud of these kids.”
Knouse’s scoring and Allen’s six rebounds were important for the Vikings, who are certainly not at their strongest without the bouncy 6-5 Shepherd on the floor to catch Diggins’ lobs or slap opponents’ layup attempts off the backboard.
Both juniors, Knouse and Allen have been playing reserve minutes all year long for Wood, but largely taking a backseat role to the five star seniors.
“The whole year, I’ve just been ready when (Mosco) has called me,” Knouse said, “and I’ve just tried to be as ready as I can to help the team win.”
“They’ve been very important for us, we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them,” Randolph said. “That sums it up right there, we wouldn’t be in this position if it wasn’t for those two.”
Randolph hit one of the game’s biggest shots, a 3-pointer with 3:52 left that, following one off Diggins’ fingertips, made it 65-59, Wood’s biggest lead of the game. The lefty 6-4 shooting guard put together a strong all-around game, shooting 7-of-14 overall and 2-of-8 from 3-point range.
“It was just on my mind that we couldn’t make this our last high school game,” he said. “So I had to step in and make plays, I’m trying to do whatever my team needs to win.”
Archbishop Wood gets Reading in the final, the District 3 champs having dispatched District 7 champ Upper St. Clair in the other state semifinal. The championship will be Saturday night at the GIANT Center, a 7:30 PM tip.
The Vikings will be going for their second-ever state championship, after the group led by Collin Gillespie, Matt Cerruti and Keith Otto capped a 28-3 season by romping over Meadville in the 2017 5A game. Randolph said that group of seniors stays in touch with the current team, even though they were off at their respective colleges when these seniors got to the Warminster school.
“They just basically talk about how they’re better than us, and we don’t feel as though they are. Just going back and forth with each other, funny stuff like that,” Randolph said. But he thinks his teammates will have the stronger case: “They weren’t perfect like we are. We’re undefeated, that’s our argument.
“And when we catch this [championship], there’s nothing else to say. It’s history.”
Archbishop Wood: 12 | 24 | 17 | 19 || 72
Lower Merion: 21 | 20 | 12 | 15 || 68
Archbishop Wood: 26-51 FG (8-23 3PT), 12-18 FT
Lower Merion: 26-52 FG (9-22 3PT), 7-11 FT
Archbishop Wood: Randolph 24, Diggins 16, Stinson 12, Knouse 10, Newton 10
Lower Merion: Lilley 25, Wong 12, Brown 11, Davison 10, Shippen 10