Sam Davison (1) had 18 points Friday night as Lower Merion beat Cheltenham in the District 1 6A quarterfinals. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
With less than a minute left in a close, hard-fought District 1 6A quarterfinal matchup, Lower Merion prepared to inbounds the ball when a Cheltenham coach called out.
“Don’t foul one!”
It was sound advice.
Sam Davison, wearing the No. 1 jersey for Lower Merion, had already stepped to the line three times in the prior minute, sinking a pair of foul shots each time. Even though the Panthers were able to keep Davison from getting back to the stripe, the damage the Aces’ senior inflicted was already done, helping No. 9 Lower Merion survive on the road yet again in the district playoffs, advancing to the district semifinals with a 59-50 win over the No. 1 seed in the 20-team bracket.
After making a couple 1-and-1s earlier in the game, Davison stepped to the line with LM up 50-48 and 2:07 remaining, then again on the Aces’ next possession, dropping each one through the net and making it 54-48 with 1:20 left. By the time the 6-foot-tall, 160-pound guard returned with 1:02 remaining it was a two-shot situation and he sunk them both to make it 56-49 and put things all but out of reach for the host Panthers.
“I was like, got to hit these, I’m a senior, got to show the younger guys what to do in these situations,” Davison said afterwards. “Got to step up, be a leader, and that’s what I did.”
Davison finished with 18 points, going a perfect 8-of-8 from the foul stripe, adding in four rebounds and four assists. He was matched with 18 by junior guard Jaylen Shippen, who had three 3-pointers and helped kick-start Lower Merion’s offense after a hot start by Cheltenham. Joining the pair in double figures was 6-9 junior forward Demetrius Lilley, who had 12 points and grabbed 21 rebounds against a Cheltenham side lacking a true big man.
(District Matchups Set: Click here for recaps of the District 1 5A semifinals and 6A quarterfinals)
For Davison, playing a major role on the Aces’ storied varsity squad comes a year later than he’d expected.
As a sophomore, he was a swing player but didn’t see much varsity time, getting his minutes on JV as the Lower Merion main squad was led by an 11-man senior class that included multi-year starters Jack Forrest (Columbia/St. Joe’s), Steve Payne (East Stroudsburg), Darryl Taylor and almost all of the rest of the Aces’ rotation. But once that group — which made it to the 2019 District 1 6A semifinals and into the second round of the state tournament — graduated and moved on, the Lower Merion coaching staff expected Davison to slide into a big role right away.
Then, 10 days after school let out for the summer, Davison had his break ruined .
“We were doing controlled 1-on-1 games...there was a bit of contact, as I was shuffling back, I planted that foot my knee sort of gave way and it popped,” he said. “I was down on the ground for about five minutes, [the] worst pain I’ve ever felt, by far.”
“We were devastated when we lost Sam for his junior year,” head coach Gregg Downer said, “and to see him back at 100 percent is really, really nice to see.”
The torn ACL Davison suffered kept him out his entire junior season, which saw Lower Merion go 20-8, losing to Penncrest in the Central League semifinals before beating CB East in the second round of districts to qualify for states, where they beat Northampton in the first round. But before the Aces could take on Stevie Mitchell and Wilson West Lawn in the second, COVID shut the season down.
Luckily for Davison, he was able to get some assistance with missing the year from Lower Merion alum Darryl Reynolds, who spent last season as an assistant coach with the Aces after suffering his own major knee injury following the end of his Villanova career.
“He tore his everything in his knee: ACL, PCL, even his hamstring, and he was told by doctors he would never play hoops again,” Davison said. “I learned from him that it takes very hard work, got to stay determined, got to set your goals, stay true to that and work as hard as you can.”
Davison actually worked hard enough to give himself a shot at returning for Lower Merion’s playoff run, but it was a little too short of a timeline. He said he was fully healthy by April, just in time to not be able to do anything due to the pandemic. A member of the Aces’ ultimate frisbee team, which competes in the spring, Davison saw that entire season cancelled.
“I went almost two years without playing a school sport,” he said. “Over COVID [break] I really just worked on my game, worked on my breathing, my cardio...we had team workouts at a local gym [in the fall], the high school was closed so we couldn’t practice in the high school. We found ways to get the guys together.”
Jaylen Shippen (above) added 18 points in LM's win over Cheltenham. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
With Davison in the starting lineup from the season opener Jan. 23 against Radnor, Lower Merion got off to a hot start, winning eight of its first nine before losing back-to-back games against Marple Newtown to close out the regular season and again in the Central League playoffs. That got the Aces the No. 9 seed in the District 1 6A playoffs and a trip to Downingtown West in the second round, where they won 70-59; after beating the top seeded Panthers Friday night, Downer called his team 'road warriors.'
It’s clear from watching Davison operate against Chelteham that he’s well past the effects of the knee injury. Doing a good deal of ball-handling against an aggressive Panthers’ defense, Davison kept cool under pressure, getting to the rim and finishing through contact. He’s considering continuing his career in college, applying to a mix of high-academic Division III schools with an eye on joining a roster while also considering several larger universities.
In most years, a win in the second round of districts is enough to confirm a spot in the PIAA 6A state tournament, and a quarterfinal win would guarantee a trip to Temple’s Liacouras Center and a quality seed in states. This year, only the district champion advances, one of seven district champions from around the state that will get to compete for a state title, and there’s no Liacouras trip this year.
“It’s pressure, and nobody wants to go home,” Downer said. “A few nights ago, we were at 16 teams and now we’re down to four, so we just try to take it one step at a time.”
The Aces’ opponent in the district final four is a familiar one: fellow Central League squad Garnet Valley, the No. 4 seed. The two teams have met twice this season, winning on each other’s home court: Garnet Valley 68-52 on Feb. 9 and Lower Merion 73-64 six days later.
Led by stellar lead guard Carl Schaller, the Jaguars have rolled in two district wins so far, beating Upper Dublin (69-41) and Perkiomen Valley (63-38) convincingly, and have won seven straight since that loss to the Aces.
“We’ve already played them twice, we think we’re very confident we can beat them, they’re a very good team also,” Davison said. “It’s going to take a performance like this again to take them on.”
Lower Merion: 10 | 16 | 15 | 18 || 59
Cheltenham: 19 | 11 | 7 | 13 || 50
Lower Merion: 17-44 FG (5-16 3PT), 20-24 FT
Cheltenham: 19-55 FG (5-18 3PT), 7-13 FT
Lower Merion: Payne 15, Savage 9, McClain 6, West-Ingram 5, Dearry 5, Edens 4, Walker 4, Hawkins 2
Cheltenham: Davison 18, Shippen 18, Lilley 12, Brown 6, Wright 3, Wong 2