ST. ALBANS, N.Y. - The 'More than a Game' Invitational Classic high school division championship was Wednesday at St. Albans Park in Queens, N.Y.
The matchup between Positive Direction (N.Y.) and the N.Y. Blackhawks was a contest of chess strategy, as each team methodically moved their respective pieces in place for the victory.
It was Positive Direction, coached by Tim Brisco, that was able to get the checkmate, finding the right combination of players on the court to lock down the Blackhawks and cruise to a 64-52 victory for the championship win.
Led by Isaiah Simpson (Flushing H.S. (N.Y.) '14), the Blackhawks, coached by Howard Hammond, had control of the contest early on, holding as much as a 10-point advantage, 20-10, following a 3-pointer by Dupree McBrayer (Quest Prep (Nev.) '14; formerly of Springfield H.S. (N.Y.)) with six minutes remaining in the first half.
Positive Direction's Keanu Jean-Gilles (Holy Cross H.S. (N.Y.) '14) scored on back-to-back treys to catapult his team within four points, 20-16, at the 3:38 mark.
"Keanu was great," said Brisco. "He's kind of a sleeper type of kid - very athletic, can make the 3, can go to the basket and he's very good defensively. As you saw, he can block some shots."
Positive Direction would cut its deficit to as little as two points, 20-18, before Blackhawks' Sonny Okorie (Queens H.S. of Teaching (N.Y.) '15) completed the conventional three-point play to give his team a five-point lift, 23-18, with 2:32 remaining in the stanza. Still, Positive Direction outscored the Blackhawks 6-2 in the final minutes of the first half, leaving Positive Direction sitting behind the Blackhawks by only one point, 25-24, at the break.
The teams were knotted at about the 14-minute mark of the second half - when the score was tied at 28. A 3-pointer by Blackhawks' Andre Walker (Christ the King (N.Y.) '15) drunk from the bottom of the well and pulled the team out front by three points, 31-28. As both squads made necessary adjustments, there were two more ties before Positive Direction earned a 37-35 advantage.
Just when it looked like Positive Direction was struggling with turnovers and getting sucked into the Blackhawks' tornado helter-skelter play that threw former opponents off course, Positive Direction found a calm in the midst of the storm.
A huge part of the team's success was game M.V.P. Elijah McNeely (Benjamin Cardozo H.S. (N.Y.) '15). A tough guard with a strong handle, McNeely was not only able to keep his composure under pressure, but also could move the ball seamlessly to the palms of his teammates in the frontcourt and on the wing. He even possessed the strength and balance to dribble down the lane and score against much contact without being stripped or prevented from scoring.
"Elijah took it upon himself, and I've been speaking to him about being that point guard or being that coach on the floor," said Brisco. "And, today, I think he really understood what I was talking about."
Assisting with garnering more opportunities and second-chance points with his long arms and athletic body, YaShawn Bright (Christ the King H.S. (N.Y.) '16) stepped in, dominated off the boards and effectively chased down 50/50 balls. Simply having to challenge Bright for the ball was a workout of its own, as Bright is relentless when jumping in the air multiple times to secure the possession.
"YaShawn is another sleeper, but guys know about him now," said Brisco. "He's a slasher. He can score inside and outside. Today he showed up."
Bright, along with McNeely and Jean-Gilles, created for a formidable grouping, plaguing the Blackhawks with strong defense that forced its opponents to cough up the basketball. The trio quickly capitalized on these added scoring opportunities.
"We brought the bench in - they came in and gave us a lot of energy," said Brisco. "Elijah McNeely played great today. Keanu Gilles brought the spark off the bench and that kind of changed the momentum of the game."
As a result, Positive Direction quickly evolved into a pick-your-poison type team for the Blackhawks, as the squad had its way with the unraveling Blackhawks.
Positive Direction earned as much as a 12-point advantage 59-47, with 46 seconds left in the matchup.
"We made sure we located who their players were and wouldn't let them be effective," said Brisco. "It was kind of like a man-zone. The ball movement was great toward the end. Guys got it in, moved the ball well. We attacked the basket instead of settling for jumpshots and we came out victorious."
Positive Direction's McNeely recorded 14 points, while teammate Jean-Gilles posted 12 points, which included three 3-pointers. Positive Direction's Dimitri Joseph (Redemption (Mass.) '15) had 11 points while, in addition to a number of rebounds, Bright added six points in the second half. Meanwhile, N.Y. Blackhawks' McBrayer and Simpson finished with 19 and 17 points, respectively, in the loss.