Opening its 2021 boys’ basketball season in an atmosphere of uncertainty due to the COVID pandemic, Lower Merion rose to the challenge and put together quite a memorable campaign.
The Aces (13-5) captured their first PIAA District 1 title since the days of Kobe Bryant and came within an eyelash of defeating Archbishop Wood, the ninth-ranked boys’ basketball team in the United States, in the PIAA 6A state semifinals.
It was the first time the Aces won three straight road games in the District 1 playoffs, and Lower Merion maintained its hold on Pennsylvania’s longest current consecutive state playoff streak (11 years), dating back to 2011.
“This was a really fun group to coach,” said Lower Merion head coach Gregg Downer. “They played with a lot of grit and determination. I think these players really believed in themselves.”
The biggest Ace was 6-foot-9 junior center Demetrius Lilley, who scored 20.6 points per game and pulled down 12.2 rebounds per contest. He is the first Lower Merion since Kobe Bryant in 1996 to average better than 20 points and 10 rebounds per game.
One of the trademarks of this team was its never-say-die attitude, and two of their starters were players who came back from physical setbacks suffered in their junior year – senior point guard Sam Davison (knee injury) and senior forward Zack Wong (hip surgery).
Davison, called “the engine of our team” by Downer, was a solid starter (12.0 ppg, 3.9 apg and 3.2 rpg) and made SportCenter’s Top Ten with his 70-foot- buzzer-beating shot against Harriton.
Wong, referred to by Downer as “our Swiss Army knife,” because of his variety of skills, averaged 3.5 rpg, 2.2 apg and 6.0 ppg, and converted more than 60 percent of his three-point attempt during the Aces’ torrid post-season run.
Sophomore guard Sam Brown, the son of former Sixers coach Brett Brown, averaged 11.0 ppg and 2.2 apg, while converting 85.4 percent of his free throws.
Junior guard Jaylen Shippen (6.8 ppg, 3.0 apg) also was a key contributor, coming up big in Lower Merion’s 59-50 district playoff win against top seed Cheltenham, scoring seven straight points in the first half when the Aces trailed by 12 and finishing with a season-high 18 points.
Davison, Shippen, and Brown become first trio of Aces guards to each average better than 2:1 assist/turnover ratio in the Downer era.
This spring, the Aces will be losing five seniors to graduation – Davison, Wong, and guards Jayden Morene, Phil Cook Jr. and Connor McCabe.
“Any time you lose a senior it’s painful, but these five guys are good guys and they’re going to be successful,” said Downer.
Davison said, “I’ll remember the bonds I made with these players, I’ll remember this group of guys, and the feeling of winning the district championship and storming the court. I love each and every one of them.”
In the PIAA 6A state semifinal March 23 at the Kobe Bryant Gymnasium, the Aces gave undefeated Archbishop Wood a down-to-the-wire battle, jumping out to an early 15-4 lead, and leading for most of the first three quarters, before losing, 72-68.
Downer said, “We try to say we don’t play for close losses, but I think it was a heck of a high school game, the [Pennsylvania] Eastern final that was really a two-point game, lots of back-and-forth. We played with a lot of grit and a lot of determination. I’m not into close losses but I’m very proud of these kids. There was a lot of emotion in the air.”
Downer and the other Lower Merion coaches spoke to the team at length after the game.
“We [coaches] told the players that we were very proud of them; we didn’t think we would get much of a season in the pandemic, but we played 18 games and won the school’s first district title in 25 years,” said Downer. “We were a couple of minutes away from going to Hershey.”
In the first five minutes against Wood, Lower Merion built a 15-4 lead as Wong hit a trio of treys. By the end of the first quarter, the Aces had five treys and a 21-12 lead.
Davison said, “We came out with confidence, we had a no-fear mentality. We pushed the pace, we got to our spots, we hit our 3’s.”
Archbishop Wood, led by 6-foot-3 senior guard Rashool Diggins (a University of Connecticut commit), began to connect on shots in the second quarter, and when Viking senior guard Jaylen Stinson stole the ball and drove in for a layup, it cut the Aces’ lead to four (26-22).
Lower Merion came right back, after calling a timeout with 5:55 to play before halftime. Lilley scored on a nice pass from Wong after the Aces broke Wood’s press, then following a Viking missed shot, Lilley dunked to give the hosts a 30-22 lead. Lilley finished the night with 25 points and 13 rebounds.
Then it was Wood’s turn to make a run, as its constant defensive pressure forced a couple of Lower Merion turnovers. With 3:07 to play before halftime, Stinson hit a trey to tie the score at 34-34. It was only the second time in the game that the score was tied (the other was at 2-2) – Lower Merion had held the lead the rest of the time.
The Aces went ahead 38-36 with 58.3 seconds left before halftime as Lilley drove underneath in heavy traffic twice for field goals. Following a Wood missed shot from outside, Lower Merion began a crisp sequence of passes that culminated with a trey from the left corner by Brown only a few seconds before the buzzer. The Aces led at the half, 41-36.
A Lilley putback opened the third quarter, giving the Aces a 43-36 lead. But then Wood quickly went on a 7-0 run. Viking senior guard Marcus Randolph scored underneath in heavy traffic, the Aces missed from 3-point land, Diggins drove in for a layup, and following an unsuccessful LM dunk, Viking junior forward Mike Knouse hit a trey from the left corner to tie the score at 43-43 with 6:01 to play in the third quarter.
In the next four minutes, the Aces went on an 8-0 run of their own, highlighted by a trey by Shippen, a drive by Davison, a field goal underneath by Lilley, and a bundle of Wood missed shots. With 2:01 to go in the third quarter, the Aces led the ninth-ranked team in the nation 51-43.
In the next 66 seconds, Wood went on an 8-0 run to tie the score at 51-51, capped by Viking senior forward Muneer Newton’s three-point play with 54.7 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Vikings took their first lead of the night on an intercepted pass and subsequent drive for a bucket, but the Aces came right back, breaking the Wood press and finding Wong alone underneath for a layup which tied the score at 53-53.
Early in the fourth quarter, Wood went ahead 59-57 on a Randolph dunk, but Davison broke free for a layup to tie the score at 59-59.
A couple of treys by Diggins and Randolph gave the visitors a 65-59 lead, but subsequent layups by Davison and Lilley kept Lower Merion within striking distance at 67-63 with 1:13 left to play.
With 25.6 seconds to play, Randolph hit both ends of a one-and-one to give Wood a 70-64 lead, but Shippen nailed a trey from the left corner to cut the Vikings’ advantage to 70-67. Shippen hit a free throw with 1.4 seconds left to bring the Aces to within two points, but when he purposely missed the second free throw to give the hosts a chance at a game-tying bucket, Wood came up with the ball.
The Vikings brought the ball inbounds by arching a long pass almost the entire length of the court. Randolph grabbed the ball and scored just before the buzzer.