Jeff McDevitt (@JeffMcDev)
As the overflow crowd filed in approaching tip-off, the importance of this game for Conestoga and their fans was on full display.
The “Pioneer Pit” took up over a quarter of Conestoga’s gym, and there was not an open seat to be had anywhere else, as the ‘Stoga-faithful were chomping at the bit to get their first win over the defending state champs in 11 tries.
An Andrew Diehl dunk-plus-the-foul set the tone to start, and a Martin Dorsey flush sealed it and opened the floodgates for a massive court rush as Conestoga got their first win over Lower Merion since 2009, 68-60 to advance to the District 1 semifinals at the Liacouras Center on Tuesday evening.
“It was indescribable for me,” Junior forward Dan Vila said of the raucous atmosphere.
“That was probably one of the coolest experiences of my life. As a team, a bunch of us have been playing together for a long time and it’s just been our parents in the stands, so to fill the entire game was just amazing. The students didn’t just show up but they were involved the whole game screaming their lungs out. That was amazing.”
After the Diehl dunk, the Pioneers continued to get easy looks in the first half, going up by 10 points two different times. Vila was the catalyst, with 12 points, four boards and three assists in the first half alone. Conestoga’s balanced attack moved the ball rapidly on offense, and got layups against a normally-disciplined Lower Merion defense.
“We wanted to get the ball to the rim, and I thought we did a great job of passing the ball to the open man. There were several times where we passed the ball three or four times to find the open man, and because of that we got a lot good looks,” Conestoga head coach Mike Troy said.
There’s an adage that goes “it’s amazing what can get done when no one cares who gets the credit,” and it’s clear Conestoga has bought into that mentality. Midway through the first quarter, all five starters had scored a bucket, and by the final buzzer four were in double figures.
“We’ve been stressing it a lot. This whole year, it’s been the open guy getting the shot. I think the passes were within the offense, and it just so happened that I was the one getting the assists and they were getting the bucket, it have easily been the other way around,” Vila said.
Senior Swarthmore-commit Zach Yonda again led the way with 15 points, while Vila and junior energy-guy Dorsey each had 12. Dorsey also snared 11 rebounds, while Vila dished five assists. Junior wing Diehl was a free-throw away from a double-double with nine points and 11 boards, while sophomore point guard Darryl Caldwell had 11 points three treys and two freebies.
Caldwell’s biggest shot was also the biggest play of the game. After an 8-1 mini-run from the Aces capped off by two Ja’Quan Johnson free throws gave Gregg Downer’s squad their first lead of the game at 47-45, Caldwell let the clock tick down and launched a deep three that rattled home.
“Lower Merion is a very good team. They came back, and it’s a credit to our team that everytime they tried to come back, we had an answer,” Troy said about Dorsey’s gutsy three at the horn.
Senior guard James VanDeventer helped ice the game late, hitting all six of his free throw attempts in the fourth quarter.
Lower Merion had beaten the Pioneers twice this year, including one to take the Central League crown. In that game, senior sniper Corey Sherman had 16 points. On Friday night, the Pioneers held him to four. Senior Binghamton-commit Justin McFadden was also held in check by Dorsey before he fouled out with two minutes to go.
“He’s an excellent player but I know if I just played my style of defense and played him tough I’d be ok. I knew if he did get by me I had people waiting in help position. I was very confident and played him as tough as I could,” Dorsey said.
“Corey and Justin have been playing very well lately, so the more you can neutralize their best players the better. Corey is a very good shooter, so we wanted to limit his opportunities to get shots up,” Troy said.
McFadden finished with 14, while Carroll-transfer Nick Jones had a game-high 15 off the bench. Junior guard Steve Pendleton had 10.
Overall the Aces seemed out of sorts on offense, especially late. The Conestoga defense really shined during an 8-0 run in the fourth where the Pioneers were given a second wind by their fans, leaving the Aces in the dust.
“We played with a lot more confidence and we had the whole crowd behind us. We were hungrier in this game and we never played timid,” Vila said.
The Aces will play a state seeding match up before heading to defend their PIAA Class AAAA title.
This is the Pionners first win over Lower Merion since 2009, when they had former Davidson standout Jake Cohen and current CHS assistant coach and former Muhlenberg point guard Matt O’Hara, among others.
That same team made Conestoga’s last trip to the Liacouras Center for the District 1 semifinals. That year they lost to Penn Wood. This year brings a rematch with Pennsbury, who downed Spring Ford 69-52. Back on February 1st, Conestoga beat the Falcons 53-42 on their home court.
Vila and the rest of the Pioneers would like to see the same crowd that gathered on Irish Road on Friday night at Broad and Montgomery for the 7:30 tipoff on Tuesday.
“To see a whole school turn up for one game for us, that was awesome. We appreciate that so much.”