Harrison Klevan (above) and Lower Merion pulled away from Garnet Valley at the end of the third. (Photo: Tommy Smith/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Locked in a battle with Garnet Valley in the Central League semifinals, Lower Merion was looking for someone step up and knock down some shots.
Typically one of the best teams in the area from outside the arc, the Aces were having issues with their 3-point shooting against the Jaguars, making just three of their 16 attempts in the first half of a game that was dead even at the midway point and a three-point game with two minutes left in the third quarter.
Finally, Harrison Klevan got hot.
The Lower Merion senior knocked down three triples in the span of 90 seconds to close out the quarter, and the Aces took what suddenly had become a double-digit advantage and held onto it to close out a 72-59 victory on Sunday afternoon at Marple Newtown HS.
Klevan’s first two shots put Lower Merion up nine late in the quarter, but it was the final one that was really a back-breaker, coming off a feed from Jack Forrest -- who had just grabbed an offensive rebound -- only fractions of a second ahead of the third quarter buzzer.
“The first shot I hit, I wasn’t really sure what the score was,” said Klevan, the Aces’ only senior starter, “but I kind of felt a rhythm, and I knew the next shots that were going up were going in. I just found a groove.”
That final 3-pointer left Lower Merion (19-4) with a 55-43 lead on Garnet Valley, which had played with plenty of confidence up to that point, but suddenly found itself trailing big against a team that knows how to close out games.
The Jaguars (16-7) were never able to make it closer than 10 points the rest of the way, even though the lead never grew larger than 14. Lower Merion was 9-for-11 from the foul stripe in the fourth quarter to help put it away.
“Getting a double-digit lead against a team of that caliber is hard to do,” Lower Merion coach Gregg Downer said. “And when we got it, we just spread them out and started shooting foul shots and they couldn’t get it much closer.”
Garnet Valley matched Lower Merion shot-for-shot over the opening 20 minutes, led by senior guard Austin Laughlin (20 points) and junior forward Cade Brennan, who had nine of his 13 in the first half, making four mid-range jump shots. Senior guard Cole Palis added all nine of his points in the first half.
The Jaguars shot 14-of-24 (58.3 percent) as a team in the first half but just 8-of-24 (33.3 percent) in the second.
“We made a critical decision at halftime to get a little more aggressive, we started pressing, changed up our man coverages and it turned out to be a good decision,” Downer said. “We were 3-for-16 at halftime from 3 and I thought to myself, ‘we’re getting good looks, they’re going to start to fall,’ and Harrison got the hot hand.”
Klevan finished with 16 points, including four 3-pointers, plus three rebounds and two assists for Lower Merion. Forrest, a 6-5 wing and the only player in the Central League with Division I offers (Penn, Columbia) led Lower Merion with 22 points, shooting 8-of-13 overall and 2-of-5 from 3-point range, as well as 4-of-4 from the foul line.
Another junior, Steve Payne, had 10 points, five assists, four rebounds and four steals for Lower Merion, which will play either top-seeded Penncrest or Upper Darby in Tuesday night’s championship game at Harriton High School.
No matter what happens there, Lower Merion has already locked down the No. 3 seed in the District 1 6A Tournament, which begins with first-round play on Fri., Feb. 16; as a top-eight seed, the Aces have a bye into the second round, where they’ll play the winner of Conestoga and Cheltenham on Tues., Feb. 20.
Garnet Valley, the No. 9 seed in districts, will play No. 24 Downingtown West in the first round; winner gets No. 8 Upper Darby. All second-round winners automatically qualify for states.
Up next, the Aces have their sights set on defending their league championship, which they captured last year over Strath Haven. Gone from that team are Terrell Jones (Holy Family), Noah Fennell (NYU) and more who had led Lower Merion for a couple seasons, though Forrest, Payne and Darryl Taylor (nine points, eight rebounds vs. GV) were all starters.
Now it’s up to the current group to figure out how to do it for themselves. So far, they look plenty capable of handling the moment.
“I think Steve and I take it upon ourselves...we both think we’re the best players out there and we want to be the best players out there,” Forrest said. “Last year, we had experience, so we want to do what we can to help the team win.”
“Last year in the Central League championship, I could feel butterflies,” he added. “I played well, but...today, there’s no butterflies.”