Lower Merion Comes Up Aces, Silences Hempfield To Meet Central York In Hempfield Holiday Classic Championship

Written by: on Saturday, December 28th, 2019

 

In the world of Pennsylvania high school basketball, there are great programs, and then there is an altogether separate category. The category of royalty. And when you find yourself tasked with tabulating the best of the best that the state has to offer, any such list that fails to include the Lower Marion Aces is nothing if not foolish.

Needless to say, Lower Merion is certainly a program that carries plenty of cache not only around the commonwealth, but far, far outside its borders as well. Aside from being perhaps most well-known as the alma mater to one of the best basketball players that has ever lived, Kobe Bryant, who wore the Lower Merion maroon and white back in the mid-90’s, the Aces have long since established themselves as not only a powerhouse within the state of Pennsylvania, but arguably around the entire country as well.

To put it mildly, the Lower Merion resume reads like something out of make believe. 1,600 overall victories, an eye-popping 64% overall winning percentage, 15 District One championships, and oh yeah, seven PIAA state crowns just for good measure. Without question, such an embarrassment of Aces’ riches would make most any other program beg and plead for just a small sliver of that kind of sustained excellence.

But, even for the greatness of Lower Merion’s track record, their opponent on Friday night was likely licking their chops at having the opportunity for a landmark victory should they be able to take down arguably the biggest high school basketball giant that the entire state of Pennsylvania has to offer.

While their history may not be nearly as potent and overwhelmingly familiar as that of their counterparts on Friday night, the Hempfield Black Knights are certainly no strangers to success themselves.

Each and every year, once the preseason predictions come out, Hempfield is without fail right there amongst the lead pack of teams expected to battle it out for Section One supremacy once the regular season draws to a close. And more often than not, the Black Knights inevitably do indeed live up to such lofty expectations, sometimes advancing deep into the PIAA state tournament, an achievement that Hempfield was able to make good on in successive seasons, reaching the Elite Eight round and Sweet 16 in the 2017 and 2018 seasons respectively.

This year, while the Black Knights would most certainly like to follow in the very same footsteps as their recent illustrious brethren, the more realistic goal – at least at this point in their season – is simply just getting better and better on a daily basis. In that respect, it appears this year’s version of the Black Knight have most definitely heeded the advice of their veteran head coach, Danny Walck.

A well-seasoned and successful coach who has spent many a season patrolling the sideline of the L-L League at various stops along the way, Walck, an inquisitive mind who has a deep fascination and appreciation for the mental side of competition, has often implored his teams to focus on what they can control, playing the next play, and ultimately never making the same mistake twice. And while Hempfield has already gone through their fair share of swoons this year — perhaps best exhibited by a pair of two and three-game losing skids already this young season — the Black Knights never let their either stretch truly define them, rising up to beat Ephrata and Conestoga Valley respectively, the last which came on the road this past Friday night in buzzer-beating fashion.

So, with the Black Knights fresh off their late-game heroics against the Buckskins their last time out, Hempfield most certainly looked to bottle that very momentum up and ultimately use it to help slay the beast known as Lower Merion on their home floor exactly one week later in the opening round of the Wheatland Federal Credit Union Holiday Tournament at Hempfield High School.

And whether it be sheer history or just a case of a well-played game in general, Lower Merion would certainly leave no doubt at the end of the night as to why the Aces are once again among PA’s best.

In fact, it really started right from the get-go.

After bearing witness to a 5-0 run right of the chute — all of which came courtesy of Lower Merion 6’4 senior guard turned matchup nightmare, James Simples — Hempfield would eventually fall behind 7-0 following a marvelous dish from Simples to 5’11 sophomore guard Jaylen Shippen running free on the break, prompting the Black Knights to call a timeout just 1:32 into the contest.

From there, the Aces’ lead would eventually hit double figures as Shippen proceeded to bury a trifecta immediately following the Hempfield timeout, making it a 10-0 gap in favor of the visitors from Ardmore.

Yet even with the Black Knights clearly getting off behind the proverbial 8-ball, Davion Edmond-Greene saw the opportunity to step up and become Hempfield’s cut man.

Edmond-Greene, a 6’4 powerfully-built junior forward who transferred in from nearby Columbia, immediately took ownership of the Hempfield ship — perhaps best evidenced by his three straight buckets inside — bringing the Black Knights within shouting distance at 11-6.

But just when Hempfield might have been lured into thinking that they had finally found some momentum, Lower Merion proceeded to steal it right back, thanks in large part to a timely Eli Rothman take to the rack just prior to the first quarter buzzer, giving Lower Merion the 13-6 lead at the end of the opening quarter.

From there, Hempfield’s footing only continued to grow far more precarious.

Much in the same vein in which the first quarter began, the Black Knights would yield to a massive Aces’ run to start the second quarter proceedings as well. Yet while this one was not as sizeable as the one that had preceded it, it was just as impactful considering it forced Hempfield to burn yet another timeout, this time when staring at 20-6 deficit following an Eli Rothman triple and Lance Chestnut finish in transition with 6:09 left to go before the half.

Fortunately for the Black Knights, they finally found their answer in the face of the second quarter Lower Merion salvo after a much-needed bucket inside by way of 6’0 junior guard Jayden Alston shortly thereafter.

Again though, just when it had appeared that maybe, possibly, Hempfield would be able to solve the Lower Merion riddle, the Aces then forced the Black Knights to go right back to the drawing board.

Case in point, a pair of deep, back-breaking triples in the waning stages of the second stanza courtesy of 6’0 freshman guard Sam Brown, son of Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown, allowing the guests to trot into the intermission with ownership of the 30-17 lead.

Despite the fact that a brand-new half was just getting primed to get underway, it quickly became apparent that the same narratives that had taken shape during the opening 16 minutes would later bear more of the same fruit once the third quarter began to transpire as well.

Yet again, Hempfield had clawed back to within reach following a tough, second-effort bucket inside authored by 6’1 junior guard Ryan Hilton, bringing the Black Knights back to within 10 at 33-23. The thing was, their mojo would then quickly be seized by Lower Merion, such as what happened when James Simples proceeded to take off in full-gallop with the rim set as his destination, finishing off the sweet finger roll to put the Aces back up by two touchdowns at 37-23 with 3:45 left in the third frame.

In terms of impact players on display Friday evening, you’d be hard-pressed to find one who thrived in his opportunity on the big stage more than Hempfield 5’10 freshman guard Miguel Pena. To be sure, the Black Knights’ diminutive sharp-shooter played well-beyond his years in his first varsity action en route to bombing in four triples on the night, the penultimate of which trimmed the Aces’ down to single digits yet again at 41-33 with 1:15 left to go in the quarter.

However, if you’re sensing a theme here, you likely know what was about to come next.

As if to be right on cue, Lower Merion was able to retaliate with an immediate answer in the form of a fearless take to the cup from the bouncy and wiry Jaylen Shippen, propelling the Aces into the final stanza with the 43-33 lead.

If looking for a metaphor to describe as to what was taking place between Hempfield and Lower Merion on Friday night, consider it an hour and a half long tug of war battle with either side taking their turns pulling on the rope. Lower Merion would usually be the ones to initiate the tugging, Hempfield would pull right back, only to eventually see the Aces catch their second-wind and have the final answer in terms of the momentum shifts. In many ways, the fourth quarter was in no way different.

With the Lower Merion lead teetering right on double figures with the final frame set to kick off, the Aces proceeded to roar out of the gates with a key 5-0 outburst, all of which came thanks to the handiwork of 6’1 senior guard Lance Chestnut, ballooning the Aces’ lead out to a 15-point threshold in the infant stages of the fourth.

Ironically, on a night in which Hempfield would refuse to go quietly into the night, it would be that aforementioned freshman who would be the most vocal in terms of the scoring output as Miguel Pena would later splash in his fourth and final triple of the evening, bringing the Black Knights back to within a baker’s dozen at 53-40 with 4:20 left to go.

Again though, with Hempfield trying to mount some of a rally late, Lower Merion could have been well-served to begin a campaign that would turn their nickname from the Aces to the Boa Constrictors.

Sensing that Hempfield had exerted a lot of energy just to only flirt with getting inside double digits and nothing much more, Lower Merion proceeded to shrink the game down even further in size, forcing the Black Knights’ defensive troops to play defense for far longer than they likely wanted to endure.

Yet when the Aces did get a glimmer of daylight, such as the case when James Simples took off and finished with a hard-nosed bucket amongst the Hempfield tall trees with a minute and change left to be played which fittingly served as the punctuation point, Lower Merion had once again reigned supreme once all was said and done with the Aces heading back home to the outskirts of Philadelphia late Friday night with a 61-45 victory over Hempfield to show for their troubles.

 

NEXT UP: It’s certainly no rest for the weary in this absolutely loaded field. So much so in fact that Hempfield will play in the third-place game on Saturday against Wilson, a top-10 ranked 6A team in the state that features a lead guard getting recruited by seemingly every power five school in the nation with Stevie Mitchell. After getting through the gauntlet that is their own holiday tourney, the Black Knights will need to maintain that same level of energy and focus when they welcome the surprising Penn Manor Comets into Buchannan Gym for an old-fashioned L-L Section One tussle next Friday night for their first game coming out of the holiday respite.

On the other side of the bracket, Lower Merion will now take on Central York in the championship game at Hempfield on Saturday night after the Panthers were able to complete a valiant fourth quarter comeback over Wilson in the undercard on Friday evening, 55-48.

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