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'Core Four' leads Lower Merion to win over Strath Haven

01/20/2017, 11:15pm EST
By Anthony Dabbundo

Anthony Dabbundo (@AnthonyDabbundo)

They call themselves the ‘Core Four.’

The success of Lower Merion basketball comes from their four leading scorers: Noah Fennell, Jack Forrest, Terrell Jones, and Steve Payne.

Two sophomores, two seniors. Three guards, one wing. As they go, the Aces go.

On Friday night, the core four was firing on all cylinders. For the first time all season, all four scored in double figures, combining for 65 of the Aces’ 68 points in a critical 68-54 win over Strath Haven.

“Our core four all scored in double digits for the first time all year,” said Payne, one of the two sophomores along with Forrest. “This is the best all around game we’ve played.”

“Definitely our best performance of the year, this one takes the prize,” added Jones, the wing and the tallest of the quartet at 6-foot-4.

As a team that starts three sophomores, some growing pains we’re expected this season. The Aces started just 4-5, including 2-2 in Central League play.

For most of the first half of the season, Lower Merion (10-5, 8-2) could not get the core four to all show up on the same night. It was often only one or two of the four doing the scoring, limiting the Aces offensively.

“It’s critical that they all play well on the same night, and this is really the first time that’s happened,” Lower Merion head coach Gregg Downer said. “Sometimes one or two of them has a really big game, but we want to be multidimensional and move the ball well.”

Since the calendar has turned to 2017, the Aces have gelled, improving game after game, reeling off six consecutive league wins to start the new year.

On Friday, they turned in their best performance of the season against a tough Strath Haven team that had won four of its last five in league play.

This win catapults the Aces into the 3rd spot, over the Panthers, and keeps them in the playoff picture. If Conestoga (13-2, 10-0), were to run the table, the fourth seed would not make the playoffs, adding to the stakes on Friday.

“We knew the stakes coming in and how big the playoff ramifications were,” Downer said. “In the end, we came out with a 14-point win.”

Thanks to the win, the Aces remain in the current playoff field, with Strath Haven (10-4, 7-3) needing Conestoga to drop a game, or for the Panthers to move up to the top three in order to make the playoffs.

After a sloppy start, that included five first quarter turnovers, the Aces turned to their core four.

Forrest, who came off the bench initially, found his groove early, scoring eight points in the opening quarter at a time where the Aces were their own worst enemy. The five turnovers, combined with some easy misses around the rim, found Lower Merion trailing 14-10 after the first quarter.

“We came out a little flat, and we couldn’t get into rhythm at all,” Downer said. “Jack hitting a few threes settled us down, and we started to move the ball much better.”

In the first half, it was Fennell and Forrest combining for 19 points, thanks to excellent shooting from beyond the arc. The two combined to hit seven threes, five of them in the first half, scoring at a pace that the Panthers were unable to keep up with as the second quarter progressed.

Leading 33-28 at the break, the second half was all Lower Merion. Payne’s excellent ball handling and shooting ability took over, with the interior presence provided by Jones. The Aces moved the ball phenomenally, constantly generating open threes and easy lay-ins at the rim, including a thunderous slam dunk by Jones to cap off a 19-9 third quarter, extending the lead to 52-37.

Forrest finished with a game-high 20 points, with Fennell adding 12.

Payne and Jones scored 11 and 10 in the second half, respectively, totaling 16 and 17 points for the game, helping to ensure the Panthers were always far enough out of reach to mount a comeback.

Despite an excellent performance from Panthers’ big man John Harrar, who scored 19 points, dominating the interior, the Panthers struggled to get shots to drop against an active Aces defense.

Lower Merion is on the ascension yet again as the league and district playoffs near, and there is no denying what will lead the Aces deep into the district playoffs.

With central Pa. powerhouse Carlisle, Garnet Valley, and undefeated Conestoga on the schedule over the next seven days, the Aces will be tested in the coming days.

“We’re on a roll right now, undefeated in 2017, and we’ll see what happens,” Payne said.

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