The seventh seed Conestoga Pioneers advanced to the quarterfinals of the boys’ basketball PIAA District 1, 6A playoffs after a resounding 77-57 win over the 10th seed Lower Merion Aces.
This was the rubber match for these two Central Athletic League rivals. In the previous two games, the road team had come out on top, with Conestoga winning 72-69 in December, and Lower Merion returning the favor in January with a 58-86 victory.
This playoff rematch was expected to be another close game after the teams finished the regular season with nearly identical records.
Conestoga entered as a slight favorite with a record of 19-4 overall and 16-2 in league play. Lower Merion finished the season at 19-7 overall and 16-4 league record.
Recently the Aces made news by making a statement with their warm up shirts. For the last few weeks they had warmed up in black t-shirts with white letters that read, “I am a Muslim. I am a refugee. I am an immigrant. I am an American. I am an Ace." On Tuesday they continued this but with shirts that simply said “equality.”
In the opening moments it looked as though the Pioneers and Aces would play a classic as they traded three-pointers right after tip-off. Conestoga senior forward Charlie Martin scored the games’ first points, only to have Lower Merion senior guard Terrell Jones answer seconds later for an early 3-3 tie.
At the end of the 1st quarter, Conestoga held a 15-10 lead. Lower Merion kept it close and remained within 5 points throughout the second quarter, until the closing seconds of the half.
With only 1.7 seconds left in the half, Conestoga senior guard Scott Shapiro made a layup and was fouled. He converted at the free throw line for an old fashioned three-point play. The Pioneers went into halftime with a more comfortable 8 point lead of 35-28.
Conestoga Head Coach Mike Troy said that he kept his message to his team relatively simple at halftime. “I just told them to play Conestoga basketball. Trust each other, make the extra pass, and knock down shots.”
Coming out of halftime the Pioneers took their coach’s advice and used long cross court passes in transition to set up offensive opportunities and rode the momentum from the end of the first half.
Early in the third quarter, Lower Merion got a point back and trailed by 7. Conestoga sophomore forward Milton Robinson came up with a steal and found Martin in transition. Martin made the layup and was fouled. He converted at the line to give Conestoga their first double digit lead of the game.
On the very next series, Lower Merion missed a shot then struggled to get back on defense. Martin was wide open and hit a three-pointer to put the Pioneers up by 13.
Martin finished as the game’s leading scorer with 25 points. Senior center Angus Mayock was second on the team with 17 points, and Robinson added 13 points.
After giving up a quick six unanswered points, the Aces called timeout but couldn’t shift the momentum. From that moment on Conestoga was in control.
Lower Merion was never able to get back into the game, despite 19 points from Jones and 14 points each from sophomore guards Steve Payne and Jack Forrest.
In the closing seconds Conestoga senior forward Scott Lambert blocked an easy layup to keep the lead at an even 20 points.
Conestoga will travel to Plymouth Whitemarsh for the quarterfinals to the play the second seeded Colonials. The playoffs continue this Friday, Feb. 24 at 7 p.m.