Lower Merion hitting stride as basketball playoffs near

Lower Merion’s Steve Payne drives to the basket in Tuesday’s 75-68 win over Central League rival Garnet Valley.

Gregg Downer is optimistic about Lower Merion’s shot at playoff success once the Aces have a complete and healthy rotation.

“We’ve had to deal with injuries and illness this season,” the longtime coach said. “Our hope is that we’re 100 percent when the games matter the most.”

Lower Merion was missing one of its starters in Tuesday night’s Central League showdown at Garnet Valley but broke open a close game in the third quarter and returned to the Main Line with a 75-68 triumph. Senior guard Harrison Klevan was out with the flu.

The other usual starters are juniors: guards Steve Payne and Darryl Taylor, 6-foot-4 wing Jack Forrest, and 6-5 forward Joshua Martin. Another junior, 6-2 swingman Matt O’Connor, filled in for Klevan, who has buried 34 three-pointers in 18 games, against the Jaguars.

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Steve Payne (1) posted 18 points, 12 rebounds, and seven assists in Tuesday’s 78-65 win over Garnet Valley.

Payne, a versatile floor general, led the way against Garnet Valley with 18 points, 12 rebounds (two on offense), and seven assists. “He’s been playing real well lately,” Downer said of the 6-2, 170-pounder who leads the team in scoring, rebounding, and assists.

Payne, Taylor, and Forrest are returning starters. The Aces, who are 16-3 overall and 11-2 in league action, lost stalwarts Terrell Jones, now at Holy Family, and Noah Fennell (New York University) to graduation.

“Terrell averaged about 17 points a game, so I knew I needed to pick up my scoring,” Payne said. “I worked on my shooting a lot in the offseason.”

Payne, who played AAU ball for the Jersey Shore Warriors in the offseason, averages 19.4 points and has made 33 three-pointers. He grabbed eight of his 12 caroms vs. Garnet Valley (12-5, 9-4) after intermission.

Forrest, a long-range marksman who sat out several games with the flu, drilled four treys en route to a game-high 24 points vs. the Jaguars.

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Lower Merion’s Jack Forrest, a junior wing, is being recruited by Columbia, Penn, and Princeton.

Forrest (18.2 ppg., 43 threes in 14 games) is being recruited by Columbia, Penn, and Princeton. “He can score in bunches,” Downer said. “On any night, he could put up 30 points.”

Taylor contributed eight second-half points, seven boards, and five assists against Garnet Valley. Just as important, he helped limit senior guard Austin Laughlin (21.5 ppg., 60 treys) to 12 points on 4-for-16 shooting.

Junior guard Julian Hairston gave Lower Merion a huge boost off the bench by producing 11 points, including three treys, in the second half. “I thought we needed a spark there, and he came in and gave it to us,” Downer said.

Martin chipped in eight boards and seven points; O’Connor posted three assists and made a pair of fourth-quarter free throws; and sub Jared Robinson, a senior guard, chipped in a late bucket and four boards.

Lower Merion, which last season placed ninth in the District 1 Class 6A playoffs and qualified for states, is seeking is second straight Central League playoff title. The Aces topped Strath Haven, 82-60, in last year’s final.

No. 1 vs. No. 1

Imhotep Charter, which is ranked No. 1 in Southeastern Pennsylvania by the Inquirer, will take on Camden, South Jersey’s top-ranked team, at 4 p.m. Saturday at Woodrow Wilson in Camden.

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Imhotep Charter’s Donta Scott (24) goes up for a shot against Martin Luther King.

Imhotep (18-2) is paced by 6-5 junior guards and Division I recruits Danta Scott and Dahmir Bishop, 6-6 junior forwards Chereef Knox and Jamil Riggins, and senior guard Bernard Lightsey.

Camden (11-2) is led by 6-5 senior swingman and St. Francis (Pa.) recruit Myles Thompson (16 ppg., 9 rpg.), senior guard Corey Greer (17 ppg.), and 6-8 sophomore forward Lance Ware.

“They compete real hard, share the ball well, and are very athletic,” Imhotep coach Andre Noble said.

With Greer’s buzzer-beating trey in OT, the Panthers stunned talent-filled Westtown School, 74-71, in the Kobe Bryant Boosters Philly.com Play-By-Play Classic on Jan. 20.