Demetrius Lilley (above) has been a standout big man for the Aces. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
It’s time for the District 1 6A semifinals. Normally played at Temple University’s Liacouras Center each March, instead this year’s semifinals and championship will be played on home courts, giving the suburban playoffs a more intimate and comfortable atmosphere for the competitors. Both contests will tip off Tuesday night at 7 PM with the winners meeting Friday in the district championship.
Unlike most years, when the top 10 finishers in the District 1 6A tournament all advance to the 32-team state bracket, this year’s seven-team state bracket will feature only district champions. So there’s certainly quite a bit on the line.
Here’s a look at each of the two games:
4) Garnet Valley vs. 9) Lower Merion
It seems like just about every year Mike Brown has been at Garnet Valley, the Jaguars have achieved some type of new program benchmark.
There was their first district playoff win in the ‘large-school’ bracket (2017), their first Central League playoff appearance (2018), a return to the state tournament after 20-plus years (2020), and recently the first Central League title (2021). Now, another first, as the Jaguars are making their District 1 6A semifinal debut.
“We keep taking the next step, fortunately,” said Brown, who was hired in 2012 to take over a program that had won three games total in the three seasons prior. “The kids have played well all season, but they’re playing their best at the right time. Hopefully we’ll play well again.”
There’s no trip to Temple this year, the whole district tournament hosted on the higher seeds’ home courts. But in lieu of getting to play in the Liacouras Center, the Jaguars — the highest seed remaining — get some friendly confines if they want to be the one and only team from the district to make the state bracket in the limited field; only seven teams will contest for the PIAA 6A bracket, rather than the 32 who qualify in non-COVID seasons.
“It’s on us to win,” Brown said. “We have the opportunity.”
Traveling down to Garnet Valley on Tuesday is a familiar foe in Lower Merion, no stranger to deep playoff runs under longtime head coach Gregg Downer. The Aces, who were in the district semifinals two years ago, last made it to a district championship in 2013 and haven’t won it all since Kobe Bryant was a senior in 1996.
Carl Schaller (above, last season) dropped 30 points in the quarterfinals to help lead Garnet Valley to another resounding win. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
To get past the Jaguars on the road, they’re going to need to find a way to slow down Carl Schaller. Garnet Valley’s Gettysburg-bound lead guard has been tough to stop with the ball in his hands for the last four years and has stepped his game up as high school career draws to a close, scoring 19 points against No. 20 Upper Dublin in the second round and then pouring in 30 against No. 5 Perkiomen Valley in a 63-38 win.
“They’re very dynamic, lots of shooting and it all starts with Schaller,” Downer said. “He’s just a great player, very likely MVP of the Central League...I have a lot of respect for Mike Brown and for their team, we’ve been battling them many, many times over the past two or three years.”
Along with Schaller, fellow seniors Gannon McKee and Justin Langan have shouldered a good deal of scoring for an uptempo squad, while junior forward Ryan Wooten has had double-digit outings as well.
While Garnet Valley’s focus is on the perimeter, the Jaguars’ biggest task will be stopping the Aces’ 6-foot-9, 240-pound junior center Demetrius Lilley. Lilley stands at least five inches taller than anybody in the GV rotation, and with his ability to step outside and hit shots as well as score in the post and gobble up rebounds — he had 21 to go along with 12 points in LM’s quarterfinal win over No. 1 Cheltenham — he presents a real problem.
But if GV devotes too many resources to stopping Lilley, senior guard Sam Davison, junior Jaylen Shippen and sophomore Sam Brown lead the Aces’ perimeter attack; Davison and Shippen had 18 each against Cheltenham.
“There’s no magic, we try to pressure the pass into him so it’s not perfect, we try to front him a little bit and get help,” Brown said. “I wish I had a magic wand, but you have to be careful because if you go overboard on that, then you end up getting hurt by the other four guys.” — Josh Verlin
Rob Bell (above, last season) has helped lead the Ghosts to upset victories in the playoffs. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
7) Central Bucks East vs. 14) Abington
These are two teams with district tournament histories polar opposite to each other.
Abington, one of the powerhouses in District 1 over the last decade, has been to seven district semifinals since coach Charles Grasty took over in 2010. From 2017-2019, the Ghosts dominated District 1, winning three straight championships with Eric Dixon (Villanova), Lucas Monroe (Penn) and Robbie Heath leading the way.
Unlike those previous teams, this year Abington wasn’t favored to win the whole thing, coming into the tournament the No. 14 seed with a record of 9-5.
“I asked those guys yesterday at practice if they expected this and I think it was split down the middle,” Grasty said. “It’s something they wanted; I don’t know if they expected it.”
After scraping past Kennett in the opening round, Abington faced off against a familiar foe, in Plymouth Whitemarsh, who they’d lost to a month prior by 29. Abington had 21 turnovers in the first game, so Grasty knew that if his team was more careful with the ball, they would have a shot. In the second meeting the tables were completely turned, with Abington winning 66-48. Grasty said the difference between the two results was “definitely the growth” his team went through over those four weeks.
The Ghosts are led by two seniors, point guard Rob Bell and forward Oreck Frazier, but they’ve been getting contributions from all over the place. Senior forward Caleb Baker is a threat down low and on the offensive glass, along with junior Derrius Lucas. Karim Boyd is one of many guys who provides energy for Abington off the bench as well.
The team awaiting Abington is a school that’s experiencing its first District semifinal since 1984 and only its third ever.
Central Bucks East got here thanks to two buzzer beaters in two straight games by freshman Jacob Cummiskey, one coming against Boyertown and the other against North Penn. Both instances, CB East was down one in the final seconds, but Cummiskey was able to get to the basket and put up a shot for the win.
“Jacob is really a special talent. He’s got great size, great length, and he plays with a ton of confidence,” Henrysen said.
Although Cummiskey has been intricate in getting CB East to where they are, other players have stepped up. The Patriots are a deep team with plenty of seniors, including guard Joe Jackman and 6-9 forward Jack Hamilton; fellow seniors Brendan Hart and Jason Markowitz are some other key contributors on the floor.
These two teams faced off against each other last year, with Abington coming back from an early deficit to force overtime and win the game 66-63.
“I think we match up well,” Henrysen said. “I know certainly their strengths are on the defensive end, they really lock down, and we’re looking for our guards to handle that pressure, and I hope that our size and length can offset some of that strength.” — Zak Wolf