SOUTH JAMAICA, N.Y. After it was reported that New Heights would forfeit the semifinal matchup on Saturday, the show went on as The Rens received an automatic advance to the championship game.
Some put into question the fairness of the contest since players in the second semifinal contest would be playing two games in one day instead of one. However, Team Flight defied all odds, defeating Juice All-Stars in the semifinal round and, ultimately, taking out The Rens (Juniors) in a 92-83 heated overtime championship battle.
"It was a tough game because we had to play two games - we had less than an hour break. They [The Rens] played fresh- they didn't have to play in the semifinal game," said Team Flight's assistant coach Eric Jaklitsch. "It's a great thing. They all wanted to win this tournament. It's the best tournament to win. Five of these guys are seniors. They've been to the semifinals twice. They lost both times. Now, we wanted to win."
In a contest where defense was stressed and points were very hard to come by, the game seemed to progress at a very slow pace. Both squads traded leads. And, though The Rens were breathing down the necks of Team Flight for much of the period, the latter took a substantial lead at the end of the first quarter, 26-18.
In the early minutes of the second phase, a great pass from Maurice Watson (Boys' Latin of Philadelphia Charter School (Pa.) '12) to teammate St. John's-bound Felix Balamou (Our Savior New American School (N.Y.) '12) extended Team Flight's lead to 12 points, 30-18. On the next trip down, that became a 14-point lead, 32-18.
Watching its chances of obtaining its first iS8/Nike championship, the budding Rens' Thaddeus Hall (Thomas Jefferson High School (N.Y.) '12) sprang into action by almost singlehandedly bringing his team within eight points, 36-28. On the last play, the South Carolina commit pulled up and drained a pure 3-pointer with just under 4:50 remaining before halftime.
Still, despite the work going into the contest, it seemed that The Rens just did not have the tools to compete with a Team Flight that was clicking on all cylinders. On top of that, it was not the outside guard play of Team Flight that was getting the job done, where The Rens' many guards and wings could defensively check them; instead, most of the work for Team Flight was being done on the inside.
Thanks to the determined nature under the rim by Jordan Washington (Pathways College Prep (N.Y.) '13), enhanced by his bruising strength in the middle, Team Flight stayed elevated above the competition. Team Flight's shot-blocking big man with the big hands Christopher Obekpa (Our Savior New American School (N.Y.) '12) prevented The Rens from scoring off of high-percentage shots in the middle.
It was a sharp pass by teammate Jameik Riviere (August Martin High School (N.Y.) '13) to Washington in the paint that gave way to Team Flight, once again, leading by 12 points, 48-36. The score remained fixed at halftime.
Washington led his team with 15 first-half points, en route to a game-high 33-point performance.
"We told them that we needed them to stay in the game," said Jaklitsch of keeping his bigs aggressive, but out of foul trouble. "We needed them to be smart and play good defense."
In the third quarter, The Rens turned up the heat, shifting the momentum in their favor, forcing Team Flight to commit turnovers and taking it straight to the inside in rapid transition. At times, Team Flight left narrow openings in driving lanes, which were immediately exploited off the bounce by The Rens.
The Rens chopped their deficit to only six points, 62-56, as multiple players, including Shamiek Sheppard (South Shore High School (N.Y.) '13) put hand to oar and rowed upstream. Team Flight tried to find a rhythm of their own, but kept getting halted by The Rens.
The Rens' comeback leaked into the fourth and final phase. Not for lack of trying, Team Flight was only able to lift its advantage to eight points, 69-61, on a strong move to the hole by Washington, before The Rens started to reestablish itself as an imminent threat to Team Flight's desire for a win.
The Rens applied all types of pressure on Team Flight, especially on the squad's strong big man, Washington. And, because of the sense of urgency, Team Flight began to make errors during their trips down the court. The Rens quickly capitalized on those mistakes, snipping Team Flight's advantage to as close as two points, 71-69.
After exploiting lanes in the ensuing minutes - mostly executed by Hall - The Rens knotted the contest at 74 on a bucket by Wayne Martin (South Shore High School (N.Y.) '12) at about the 2:43 mark of the fourth period. It was a basket in transition by Sheppard that thrust The Rens ahead of the competition for the first time since the first quarter, 76-74.
In the final two minutes of regulation, both teams were vying to simply hold on to a two-point lead before time expired. Hall scored the last two points for The Rens in regulation at the free throw line, nailing 2-of-2 from the stripe. The free throws lifted The Rens to a two-point advantage, 78-76, at the 1:36 mark, but, seconds later, Team Flight tied it at 78.
However, the pendulum did not swing in either squad's favor down the stretch. In fact, Riviere attempted to travel through traffic to the rim to win the game, but missed the mark as time ran out. The lack of production from both teams sent the contest into overtime.
In overtime, despite the pressure and going through a series of verbal spats between the squads, Team Flight came out with a renewed will to win. The squad went on an 8-0 run from the start of post-regulation, holding an 86-78 edge over the competition at about the 1:05 mark. The Rens seemed to run out of ideas of how to break the choke-hold Washington and company had on the momentum of the game.
As a result, after a technical foul was called on Sheppard, Team Flight's Riviere and Washington combined for 3-of-4 from the line and gave their team a 92-81 advantage with 35 seconds remaining in the game.
"I told them, 'Four minutes. We can't let this slip away,'" said Jaklitsch of the squad's renewed sense of needing to win during the overtime period. "We let the lead slip away in the second half. We couldn't let it slip away. We had to go and take it. And that's what we did. Took it."
Because of Washington's instrumental role in the game, as well as his high, individual point total, he earned Most Valuable Player of the championship game. Team Flight's Watson tacked on 19 points, while teammates Nick Lewis and Balamou recorded 12 points a piece. Meanwhile, The Rens' Hall netted a team-high 24 points. Teammates Martin and Sheppard posted 19 and 14 points, respectively.