His sweater spotted with drops of sweat, Lower Merion coach Gregg Downer emerged from his victorious locker room with a slight smile and a look of relief.
What a week it’s been for the Aces and their head coach. First Downer’s wife gave birth to a daughter on Thursday morning, then Lower Merion beat rival Chester on Saturday night to win a Class AAAA title.
B.J. Johnson had 22 points, and Jaquan Johnson’s hustle sparked Lower Merion’s defense late in the 63-47 victory that capped PIAA’s championship weekend.
“It’s been amazing. Arguably, some of the best 72 hours of my life,” Downer said. “I have a beautiful young daughter at home now, and I have my third gold medal for a group of incredible kids.”
And the program’s seventh overall — though this one might be more special because the Aces (30-3) beat the Clippers (27-4). It was a rematch of last year’s Class AAAA title game, won by Chester 59-33.
Lower Merion eliminated New Castle in the state semifinals, 67-63, at Williamsport High School.
The Clippers were saddled Saturday night by 31 percent shooting despite getting some good looks at the bucket. Still, Chester drew to within 43-38 early in the fourth quarter, and fans wondered if the Clippers would make a patented late charge.
Instead, Lower Merion got its revenge and snapped a three-game losing streak against its fellow southeastern Pennsylvania power.
“We just had a game plan to have fun out there,” Jaquan Johnson said.
Like when Johnson found Yohanny Dalembert (10 points, seven rebounds) for a dunk with 5:55 left.
Or when Johnson got a steal on Chester’s next possession and found Raheem Hall for a layup on the break to take an 11-point lead roughly 30 seconds later.
Lower Merion’s loud student section celebrated early in the stands. In the hallway under the Giant Center after the game, Dalembert carried the championship trophy over his head and swung it side-to-side as if he were protecting a rebound.
Chester’s 78-game winning streak against Pennsylvania opponents came to a halt. They were also held to a season low in points, thwarted in part by 1-of-13 shooting from 3-point range.
“Tonight just wasn’t our night. We seemed a step slow. We just couldn’t find that spark we needed,” Chester coach Larry Yarbray said. “The past three years we’ve won something like 105 games, and I’m proud of my guys for that. But tonight wasn’t our night.”
Rondae Jefferson had 12 points and 18 rebounds to lead Chester, while Richard Granberry had 10 points and 10 boards. The Clippers appeared to be the favorite in the PIAA’s marquee matchup of championship weekend.
But Lower Merion had the smooth, cool B.J. Johnson, who calmly handled Chester’s pressure. He finished 6-of-9 shooting from the field and 8-of-11 shooting from the foul line.
Last year, the 6-foot-7-inch forward, who plans to attend Syracuse, had seven points and six rebounds in the title game against Chester.
“He worked so hard the last 12 months to potentially gain this redemption,” Downer said of Johnson. “He’s really struggled against Chester ... For him, that type of performance when it counted was great for one of the finest players to ever play at Lower Merion.”
That’s quite the compliment considering Lower Merion boasts Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant among its alumni.
Lower Merion also tried shortening the game at times by playing a slow-down, four corners offense. Downer said he thought going into the game that Chester might be too physical for Lower Merion defensively.
The strategy paid off.
“If you play a team four times in two years, it’s hard to beat them every time,” Yarbray said. “They know what we want to do; we know what they want to do. Tonight was their night.”
Beaver Falls 69,
Holy Cross 63
Micoy Mason hit two late 3-pointers, and Beaver Falls turned up the defensive pressure in the fourth quarter to rally past foul-plagued Holy Cross for a victory Saturday to win the state Class AA championship.
The Tigers (28-3) trailed by as much as 12 by didn’t let up on the Crusaders (27-6) and imposing center Josh Kosin (25 points, 11 rebounds).
But Beaver Falls took advantage late with Kosin and teammate Casey Gaughan (10 points) in foul trouble.
Beaver Falls finally took its first lead midway through the fourth quarter. Mason (14 points) hit two 3s in the final four minutes, and the Tigers got their last seven points at the foul line. Four Tigers scored in double figures.
Kosin’s foul trouble disrupted Holy Cross down the stretch.
The Tigers went 8-0 against four county schools in WPIAL Section 2 action. Beaver Falls lost in the New Castle Tipoff Tournament championship to New Castle, 80-59.
South Park 53,
Bethlehem Catholic 38
Shelby Lindsay scored 20 points and South Park claimed its first PIAA girls basketball title in school history with a convincing win Saturday night over Bethlehem Catholic.
The District 7 champion Eagles used 16 first-half points from leading scorer Lindsay to build a 10-point cushion at the half on District 11 champion Bethlehem Catholic.
South Park (28-2) used a 17-4 run that started late in the first quarter and carried over to the halfway point of the second to seize control. Lindsay had 10 of those 17 points during the pivotal run.
Lindsay finished 8-of-13 shooting, while Alison McGrath added 10 points for South Park.
Sophomore Kalista Walters from Bethlehem Catholic (28-3) led all scorers with 22 points and Bridget Smith grabbed a game-high 14 rebounds.
Tara Nahodil scored 19 points and Tri-Valley won its first girls’ basketball state championship Saturday after pulling away from Vincentian for a victory.
Nahodil, a 6-foot-4 senior headed to Seton Hall, had 17 in the second half as the District 11 champion Bulldogs outscored District 7 winner Vincentian by 16 after halftime in the Class A final at the Giant Center.
Tri-Valley (28-3) used a 12-0 run the final 3:18 of the third quarter to open a 14-point lead. The Bulldogs also started the fourth quarter with an 11-2 run.
Juli Weber also scored 19 for Tri-Valley and added 10 steals and nine rebounds. Taylor Troutman chipped in 12 points to give the Bulldogs three double-digit scorers
Brenna Wise paced Vincentian (29-2) with 18 points.