Jack Forrest (above) and an impressive group of LM sophomores led the way to a Central League championship. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Lower Merion made its return to the top of the Central League.
And the way the Aces did it left all those in attendance at Marple Newtown HS on Tuesday night thinking that they’ll be heavy favorites to do it again for the next few seasons.
Behind standout performances from a trio of sophomores, Lower Merion stormed past Strath Haven for an 82-60 victory, cutting down the nets as league champions for the first time in three years.
“It’s great -- as a sophomore and just getting it for the seniors, feels great,” wing Jack Forrest said.
Forrest (18 points), along with fellow second-year high schoolers Steve Payne (26 points) and Darryl Taylor (14 points), combined for over 70 percent of Lower Merion’s scoring output. A 6-5 wing, Forrest had the most impressive all-around game, chipping in five steals, four assists and three rebounds while knocking down five 3-pointers.
Aside from the opening three minutes, which saw Strath Haven jump out to a 9-3 lead, Lower Merion was in complete control.
And the fact that LM did it with such a young rotation was even more impressive. Despite two loud, sizable student sections going back and forth all night -- the gym was equally loud no matter who hit a bucket -- the young Aces never flinched.
“I always have three sophomores on the court, which is very unusual, I’ve rarely had to do that in my career,” Downer said. “Steve Payne, Jack Forrest and Darryl Taylor really didn’t look like the environment really affected them at all tonight, which was very important.”
For the team’s seniors, notably starters Terrell Jones and Noah Fennell, the win was a bookend to those who were on the team during its last Central League championship in 2014.
“I don’t really have a lot of words for it, it feels great and it’s good to go out as Central League champ,” said Jones, who chipped in a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds. “We’ve been trying to get back since my freshman year and it obviously wasn’t easy and the hard work really paid off.”
Up eight (30-22) at halftime, Lower Merion pulled away with an absolutely dominant third quarter. The Aces knocked down all 12 of their shot attempts during those eight minutes, including three 3-pointers -- two by Forrest, one by Payne -- to open up a 61-39 lead going into the fourth.
The deluge continued well into the fourth quarter. Lower Merion had no problem with any defense Strath Haven threw out there, running past their press defense for layup after layup, and finding open shooters on the perimeter when the defense collapsed.
For the game, the Aces shot 31-of-47, including 10-of-19 from 3-point range.
“We were having a lot of fun, that was what was most important,” Jones said. “I think the coaches and myself included, other than a win, wanted to have fun, and I think we did both of those today.”
Strath Haven big man John Harrar, a 6-9, 260-pound senior, was a dominant force in the middle for the Panthers, finishing with 31 points and eight rebounds, as well as five assists plus a steal and a block.
But the rest of the Panthers (14-10) struggled to get anything going offensively; Ryan Morris had four 3-pointers but 12 points but nobody else on the team had more than four points.
“It was our best offensive performance of the season, probably our best top-to-bottom game of the season,” Downer said. “I thought our defense was good, I thought our energy was good. Harrar had like 30 points but nobody else really did much. Just a good, good team effort.”
Both teams still have games to play, as each will be taking part in District 1 playoffs.
Strath Haven is the No. 9 seed in the 5A bracket, which begins next Tuesday, when they’ll play No. 8 Upper Merion (13-9); Lower Merion, the No. 10 seed in the 6A bracket, opens up against No. 23 Central Bucks South (9-13) this Friday.
“You can say we have a lot of momentum, but there’s a very quick turnaround with the Friday ballgame,” Downer said. “We were really hoping for a top-8 bye and it didn’t happen, but we’ll need to be ready to go Friday night because if you lose that one, your season is over.”
Lower Merion's players all wore this shirt for warm-ups for the third consecutive game. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Aces make statement in warmups
As loud as Lower Merion’s on-court statement was in the dominant win over Strath Haven, the Aces made an even more distinctive one before the game even started.
For the third game in a row, Lower Merion walked onto the court wearing black t-shirts with white lettering, in the shape of a spade, the Aces' logo:
I am a Muslim. I am a refugee. I am an immigrant. I am an American. I am an Ace.
The shirts were designed by LM senior Najja Walker-X, who along with senior Terrell Jones had sat down during the national anthem for several games, starting a trend where several other Aces joined them as the games went on. But they didn’t feel that message they were trying to get across was clear enough, and so along with input from the rest of their team, the Aces debuted the shirts last Tuesday.
“We had to come together as a team to find a way to spread the message to everybody without them having to go through the coaches to know what’s going on with us,” Walker-X said.
“I think it’s neat, we had a long discussion about it and that was what they came up with,” Downer said. “I support it 100 percent.”
The shirts, which the team is selling for $10 each -- all proceeds, Walker-X said, are going to the American Civil Liberties Union -- will be worn during warm-ups for the remainder of the season, as long as Lower Merion stays alive during the district and state tournament brackets.
To those who might ask why a high school basketball team was making a statement about society and politics, Walker-X kept it simple: “People’s lives are bigger than a ball going through a hoop.”
Walker and his teammates wrote a full-page statement to explain their decision to wear the shirts. Here it is, in full, without edit:
“What’s beautiful about America is that everyone is different. And whether we are black, white, brown, orange, yellow or red, it is our legal right to express our opinions and beliefs. In the last few weeks, our team has been criticized by a few people because some of us choose to sit and others choose to stand for the national anthem. We have not been unified on the issue and we realize we may never be. That is OK. We are free to disagree and have different points of view. We are free to express our first amendment rights.
“What we do want to convey, however – as a full team – is that no matter where you come from, no matter who you are, you should be welcomed, respected and heard. As a team we believe in fighting for the rights of all – protecting, defending and giving voice to those who feel marginalized, who live in fear, and who face injustice. We recently met and decided that the best way to express our views on what concerns us about what’s happening in the world is to show a unified front and to wear a t-shirt with a message. Our t-shirts tonight say:
“I am a Muslim. I am a refugee. I am an immigrant. I am an American. I am an Ace.
“The goal of this message is to be inclusive and representative of people of all backgrounds and emphasize that we are all in this together. That no matter who we are and where we’re from, we are all ‘Aces.’
“Lastly, we want to make clear our respect for those who serve and have served our country defending freedom and liberty. We are forever grateful for your contributions.
“Thank you for your consideration and enjoy the game.”