Basketball at its best

Senior Charlie Hurwitz gives an in-depth recap of the outstanding LM boys’ basketball season.

The team poses for a celebratory photo after their incredible back-to-back Districts win | Photo courtesy of One Shot Photography

 

As an offseason full of camping trips, commitments, summer leagues, and preparation came to a close, the Boys’ Basketball team set their eyes on the prize—an opportunity to repeat as District Champions for the first time in Coach Gregg Downer’s illustrious career.

Despite losing key players like star point guard Sam Davison, who now plays at Franklin & Marshall, and winger Zack Wong, the team’s confidence remained steady. When asked about the strength of this team, co-captain Jaylen Shippen talked about the comprehensive makeup of this year’s squad. “There is a lot of diversity on this team. We have a great mix of people with a lot of experience and some that are new to the varsity team. It’s a great chemistry that just seems to work.”

The season kicked off in early December with the seventeenth annual Maroon Madness celebration and fundraiser for the Sean A. Hughes Children’s Fund. After a heartfelt tribute to the late great Hughes, whose impact on the team this year has been deeply felt, the boys’ and girls’ teams scrimmaged to the delight of the packed Kobe Bryant Gymnasium, an audience watching its first live game since the pandemic started.

The season got underway with big wins against teams like Pocono Mountain West and Garnett Valley before a COVID-19 outbreak had the team sidelined for almost three weeks. “There were a couple days there where we didn’t know what the future held, so it’s always a scary time,” said senior guard Peter Gribbin. Through it all, the Dawg Pound kept growing and its influence on games only compounded. “There was something about finally being back at the KBG this year—finally being able to watch the Aces play that had us ready to go from day one,” said senior Luke D’Alonzo.

The Aces opened up after their break with a twenty-point win against district rival Harriton. From then on, the squad went 14-2, including a massive win against Reading, the reigning state champions. “It was a great job by the fellas,” added Downer, who opined it was one of the more surprising moments of the year. The only blemish in the latter half of the regular season came during the final game, where the Aces lost in overtime to Haverford as their fans flooded the court in celebration after the final buzzer.

That loss, however, was one that motivated the Aces to double down on their game, and the team hasn’t looked back—or lost in the district—since.

Entering into the postseason, the Aces set their hopes and expectations high for a chance to take both the league and district titles once again. With an outstanding 27 points from junior guard Sam Brown, the Aces defeated Conestoga in the semifinals of the Central League playoffs, finishing with a convincing 55-33 score. They then beat Radnor for the second time this year in a tough-fought finals that ended emphatically with back-to-back monster dunks by Demetrius Lilley ’22, which sent the Dawg Pound into a frenzy, the Radnor fans packing, and the nets to be cut down.

The Central League champions then entered the district tournament as the second seed out of 24 teams. After their first round bye, LM played host to fifteenth seeded Council Rock North. Thanks to good free throw shooting and a 23-point performance by Lilley, LM was able to put away their relentless opponents in a second round home court win that saw the Dawg Pound bring the season’s first “whiteout” to the bleachers.

Next up was 23rd seed Abington, which rolled into town riding high after back-to-back upset wins. This confidence was quickly shattered as the Aces, led by Brown and Lilley, accelerated to a 30-point lead at the half before cruising through the third and fourth. The gym seemed like it was about to explode as the final buzzer sounded and the final score of 60-28 gleamed. “We just started off hot,” remarked Brown. “We came in with a great game plan and it all started to click.”

Coming off the big win, the Aces were faced with a tough task for the district semifinal. Undefeated Cheltenham was next up on the slate in what was sure to be a memorable classic. In a slow and gritty first half, LM got it done like they have all season, both inside and out. Lilley penetrated the inside and dominated the boards for some hard-earned buckets as LM struggled to knock down their shots from deep. With the Aces leading by five after the half, Brown went off for seventeen points in those last two quarters, helping to suppress Cheltenham’s continual comeback attempts.

After another great team win, all eyes were on the Liacouras Center at Temple University for the district title game. The only thing stopping them from their first back-to-back district title was the 11th seeded Norristown Eagles, who were in the midst of a Cinderella run through the district bracket. Around the stadium, royal blue Norristown shirts were surrounding the court on all sides—except for one. Behind the basket on the LM side of the court was a Dawg Pound so packed that you could barely stand without other shoulders rubbing against yours.

Like recent games, the Aces took the lead early, boasting a 23-6 lead by the end of the first quarter. However, as they have all throughout the playoffs, Norristown wouldn’t quit. The Eagles cut LM’s lead down to seven at half. After a strong third quarter, the score stood at 45-41 in favor of the Aces. The two teams traded blows throughout the quarter and, with two minutes remaining, LM was clinging onto a five-point lead. Then, almost as if on queue, Lilley slammed down two colossal dunks to definitively send Norristown on their way.

“Coming into the district tournament this year, we knew we would have to have a chip on our shoulder,” said junior guard Justin Poles. This back-to-back win will surely go down as a highlight of the Aces Basketball’s illustrious history, and the first of its kind in LM’s modern history. But even with this phenomenal accomplishment, the Aces set their sights on their next challenge: the State tournament, which opened up at the KBG for the last time of the year. The Chambersburg Spartans were in town, and after driving two and a half hours, they were ready to compete. After another electric start, the Aces found themselves up 20-8 early on in the game. In the second quarter, the Spartans came right back and brought it to a four-point game at half thanks to some stellar three-point shooting. In a tightly contested game, the Spartans were up two halfway through the third quarter, casting some doubt in the air, but in the final minutes, the Aces pulled away thanks to efficiency from the free throw line and a thirty-point night from Lilley, their star center.

On Sunday, March 13, it was time for the second round of the State tournament. Facing a familiar foe, the Aces lined up against Abington for the second time in the past couple of weeks. While the Ghosts didn’t let the Aces get off to the hot start they had in the district tournament, LM proved too much for them to handle once again, battling to an early lead before surging in the final quarter to take the game once again.

Next up was Scranton, an unfamiliar yet dangerous foe that had accumulated a 21-2 regular season record and defeated Garnet Valley in the second round of the playoffs. Yet, in a quarterfinals performance at Bethlehem that drew out an uproarious and green-clad Dawg Pound notwithstanding a two-hour drive, the Aces showcased their dominance of the game with an emphatic 72-44 win over the Knights.

But the Aces’ biggest challenge lay up ahead, in the form of a semifinal game against Roman Catholic, a school known for its plethora of Division I talent and state silverware from prior years. At Coatesville High School on Saturday, March 19, the Aces gave it all they had, climbing to an early lead of 22-9 in the second quarter. Despite LM’s strong opening, the Roman Catholic team battled its way back into contention, making the score 23-20 at the half before getting even early into the third. Even with Roman’s resurgence, the Aces fought hard to stay neck and neck with their rivals, taking back the lead temporarily with a trey by Sam Wright ’23 and a mid-range by Brown, and maintaining the score at 36-35 in Roman’s favor entering into the fourth quarter.

A cold fourth quarter opening for the Aces regressed the score to 48-35 with under two minutes to go. Despite back-to-back three-pointers from Shippen and Wright, there wasn’t enough time on the clock to make up the deficit, which ended at 53-41 to conclude the game and the Aces’ sensational season. In a contest against a formidable opponent with three Division I players and three state titles over the last six championships, with three of LM’s own starters afflicted by untimely flu illness, no one could have expected such a close and hard-fought game. Yet the Aces proved once again what they’ve demonstrated all year—their ability to defy the odds, rise to the challenge, and be one of the best teams out there, all in a quest to honor the memory of their late principal and consummate Ace. From their 38th league championship, to wins over undefeated Cheltenham and state champion Reading, to clinching back-to-back district titles for the first time in nearly a century, and every special moment in between, it’s without a doubt that they fulfilled that mission and so much more.

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