By Mike Griffith
After seeing Chester once already this month in the Pennsylvania District 1 championship game, the Aces made their adjustments and came out ready to play Saturday night in the PIAA AAAA (large schools) final.
In years past, the Chester Clippers has almost owned the state tournament, winning three of the last five championship games. The most recent came last year when they rolled over Lower Merion, 59-33, to win their second in a row. Lower Merion wanted pay back and understandably so.
The stage was perfect for one of the best player match ups all season in the state of Pennsylvania: 6-foot-7 Syracuse commit BJ Johnson of Lower Merion versus 6-foot-7 Arizona commit Rondae Jefferson of Chester. As former teammates on the AAU circuit with Team Final this past summer, the game meant a little bit more to both Johnson and Jefferson.
In the first quarter, Chester jumped out to a small early lead with good pressure and ball movement as well as an impressive poster dunk by Jefferson. Lower Merion responded effectively with two BJ Johnson threes from the right wing to knot the game up at 6-6. For the remainder of the quarter, the two Keystone State juggernauts went back and forth. At the conclusion of the first, the score was 14-12, Chester’s lead. Jefferson accounted for 12 of Chester’s 14 first quarter points with six points of his own to go along with three assists. Johnson netted eight points himself in the first, keeping the game close.
The huge, raucous Lower Merion student section made the Giant Center in Hershey, PA feel like a home court for the Aces. Their size and noise volume filled the arena and gave Lower Merion momentum in the second quarter.
The Lower Merion Aces made their move in the second quarter when Baird Howland entered the game and played great off the bench, hitting a big three and dishing an assist to Johnson for a fast break dunk and the underdog’s first lead. The lead changed back and forth until the Aces made a 10-0 run to end the half, giving them a 28-20 edge. Foul trouble for Chester center Richard Granberry and an injury to senior guard Darius Robinson late in the first turned out to be problems for the Clippers in the long run.
At the start of the third quarter, Chester fought back and cut the lead to four points after some seemingly effective half time adjustments. Richard Granberry’s re-entry also gave the Clippers a lift and shifted the momentum to Chester when he grabbed some key rebounds and finished a lay-up with a foul over 6-foot-8 Lower Merion center Yohanny Dalembert. But Lower Merion responded with another run led by solid play from guards Jaquan Johnson and Raheem Hall plus forward Justin McFadden. Howland contributed another important three pointer, which gave the Aces a 43-36 lead at the end of the third.
The final eight minutes was when Lower Merion asserted themselves as the best team in the state of Pennsylvania and the Aces’ brilliance came in waves. The first flash was a dish from Jaquan Johnson to Dalembert for a big dunk to put Lower Merion up by double digits. Chester’s crowd came to life in an effort to get the team going and the Clippers turned up the pressure to chip away at the lead. The Chester crowd was silenced, though, when Dalembert (cousin of the NBA’s Sam) put the exclamation point on the game with another thunderous throw-down following a masterful up and under move in the post. The Aces then coasted to their seventh state title in school history. The most came in 2006 and there was another 10 years earlier when a guy by the name of Kobe Bryant suited up for Lower Merion.
BJ Johnson, the unquestionable star of the game, had struggled a bit in the past losses against Chester but more than made up for it last night putting up 22 points and 11 rebounds. He’ll be suiting up in Orange next year for Syracuse University. Rondae Jefferson was just of 14 from the floor but was a force throughout tallying 12 points, 18 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 blocks.
He’ll be taking his talents to the University of Arizona next year.
We’re sure to be see both of them again during the month of March in years to come.
(Mike Griffith is a high school basketball player for West Chester (PA) Henderson and sports editor of the school newspaper/website. He also contributes to Patch websites and his personal blog is at www.gottaluvthegame.wordpress.com).