Sam Davison (1) and Lower Merion captured the District 1 6A championship Friday night. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Even Kobe Bryant would have had a tough time finding something to criticize about the way Lower Merion played.
In the gym bearing the late basketball legends’ name, at the school he put on the map a quarter-century ago, the Aces were nearly perfect in the District 1 6A championship game on Friday night against Abington.
“That’s kind of our motto, we play for Kobe,” junior forward Demetrius Lilley said. “He had that Mamba mentality, that ‘I’m getting better’ mentality, and that’s what my teammates have every single day we step on the floor.”
For the first time since Bryant led the Aces to a District 1 championship and then on to a state title as a senior in 1996, Lower Merion is the top dog in the Philadelphia suburbs. The final was 62-41 over Abington, but even that impressive margin of victory belies how thoroughly dominant Lower Merion was for 32 minutes.
From Sam Davison’s strip-and-score on Abington’s first possession, Lower Merion came out playing like Bryant had personally delivered the pre-game pep talk. The Aces raced out to a 19-4 lead after one quarter, growing the advantage to 39-17 by the break. They made three-quarters of their shots (15-of-20) and 3-pointers (6-of-8) in the first 16 minutes, hitting the Ghosts on possession after possession, both ends of the floor.
It was an unrelenting onslaught; even as the Ghosts found their offensive footing in the second quarter, they couldn’t get stops.
“Oh man, they came out on fire,” Abington coach Charles Grasty said. “They made shots, but we should have made it a little more difficult. We came out flat, we just weren’t ourselves tonight, and maybe a lot of it had to do with the way that they played, the way that they ran their stuff.”
Halftime did nothing to cool the hosts down. By the midpoint of the third quarter, it was a 50-20 Lower Merion advantage, the Aces continuously going out into their four-corners offense, then breaking the defense down and getting the looks they wanted. The entire fourth quarter was played under a running clock, the outcome long since determined.
“We all stepped up in a big moment,” said Davison, who finished with 13 points, eight assists, four steals and three rebounds. “Brightest lights we’ve ever played [under], and we were all excited, finally got the district title we’ve waited 25 years for.”
For Downer, who lost in the 1980 district championship game as a competitor, then guided Bryant and Co. to victory in the ‘96 game and hasn’t won it since, Friday’s victory was extra-sweet. Downer said he’d had his former player and friend on his mind all day.
“It wasn’t thought [about] in a sad way; we’re joining (Kobe) with a district title, something that he has and now these kids have it, and I’m glad that they have that association with him,” Downer said. “He would want us to be playing good basketball and trying to win, that’s what Lower Merion basketball’s all about.”
“Downer gave us the message, (Kobe’s) watching us,” Davison said. “He’s watching over us and watching this game and we stepped up...the last team to do this was Kobe’s team, which is extra-meaningful.”
Demetrius Lilley (above) dominated with 31 points and six rebounds, hitting all four of his 3-pointers. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Though Davison set the tone early, it was Lilley who dropped the hammer. The 6-foot-9, 245-pound forward with offers from St. Joe’s and La Salle (among others) was already going to be a matchup problem inside for Abington, which didn’t have a player on its roster taller than 6-4.
But Lilley, a skilled big who can put the ball on the floor, then stepped out to the 3-point arc — and knocked down all four of his 3-point attempts, helping himself to a 31-point evening. When he went to work inside, Davison got a number of his dimes on entry passes, with Lilley easily depositing the ball off the glass and in.
“When he’s hitting 3s, he’s unstoppable, no one can stop him,” Davison said. “I love playing with him, and I’m glad I got this run in with him.”
Sophomore guard Sam Brown joined Davison and Lilley in double figures with 15 points, hitting a pair of 3-pointers, while grabbing four rebounds and dropping three assists. Senior Zack Wong — who had six rebounds, three assists, two blocks and two steals — added three points as the only other LM player in the scoring column.
Abington got a dozen points each from senior Caleb Baker and junior Connor Fields.
Due to the pandemic forcing the district finals out of their normal home, Temple’s Liacouras Center, the No. 9 seed Aces got the opportunity to host the district title game for the first time thanks to the upsets the No. 14 Ghosts pulled in their own run to the championship.
They’re two programs that have been here before plenty of times: Lower Merion had lost four district title games since 1996, all to Chester, before the state went from four districts to six back in 2016; Abington won the 2017, 2018 and 2019 titles behind Eric Dixon (Villanova) and Lucas Monroe (Penn).
Sophomore Sam Brown (11) had two 3-pointers to help him to 15 points. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
But though COVID helped Lower Merion get the game at home, it didn’t do anything to alter the course of the tournament. The Aces earned their spot in the finals by winning at No. 8 Downingtown West, No. 1 Cheltenham and No. 4 Garnet Valley to make it to the final for the first time since 2013.
The win not only gives Lower Merion the district championship but also vaults the Aces directly in the PIAA Class 6A state semifinals. District 1 was the only of seven districts in the state whose winner automatically earned that berth, while the other six district champions in the state’s largest bracket played three “quarterfinals” for the right to advance.
“We’re playing some of our best basketball at the right time and I think we’ve done a good job not applying too much pressure to these situations,” Downer said. “Something about COVID, I think, that we’ve all learned is that we need to cherish our opportunities and you don’t know what tomorrow’s going to bring.”
As it turns out, Saturday will bring the knowledge of their next opponent.
LM will play the winner of District 12 champ Archbishop Wood and District 11 champ William Allen on Tuesday night at the Kobe Bryant Gymnasium. If it is Archbishop Wood, the unbeaten Catholic League champions who start four Division I signees and another scholarship-level hooper, the Aces will certainly have their work cut out for them.
“They’re a huge challenge, I mean they’ve just got Division I players all over the place,” Downer said. “We’re going to relish this and we’ll prepare for them like any other ballgame and hopefully we can spring an upset.”
Abington: 4 | 13 | 13 | 11 || 41
Lower Merion: 19 | 20 | 18 | 5 || 62
Abington: 16-48 FG (0-13 3PT), 9-12 FT
Lower Merion: 25-43 FG (8-16 3PT), 4-5 FT
Abington: Baker 12, Fields 12, Frazier 7, Bell 5, Boyd 3, Boyles 2
Lower Merion: Lilley 31, Brown 15, Davison 13, Wong 3