SARATOGA, NY - Championship Sunday at the GymRat Challenge at Skidmore College looked promising for a New York team to take home the crown with 16 of the 28 teams that made the playoffs from New York State, including 6 of the top 10 seeds.
It still looked good in the quarterfinals with 3 teams still in play, but in the end, a pair of New Jersey teams made the title game, leaving NY empty handed even though it was a very solid weekend overall for the players and teams from the Empire State.
First, it was impressive that 15 New York teams won their pools, showing that the depth in the state might be better than most think. House of Sports, Syracuse Select-LoBello, Long Island Lightning-Mark, Rockland Rockets, Westchester Knights, The Pride, Albany City Rocks-Black, NY Gauchos, NYC Jaguars, ICC Truth, Castle Knights, NY Blazers, Northeast Basketball Club, and Open Season all finished 3-0 in pool play and atop their pools, while the B.C. Eagles and Albany City Rocks-Bartlett grabbed the two wildcard spots to make it 16 NY teams with a chance to take the title.
9 of the 16 ended up being knocked out after the opening round, but what we had left was 7 teams that all looked capable of doing very good things the rest of the way.
House of Sports was the #2 seed in the playoffs, and with Jonathan Nwankwo (Scanlan '15) dominating during pool play, they looked like a favorite to take it all.
Syracuse Select-LoBello started the playoffs as the #5 seed, and led by the duo of H.S. teammates Jordan Roland and Tyler Reynolds (Westhill '15), a deep run out of them seemed very possible.
Long Island Lightning-Mark is a team that doesn't get the credit they deserve sometimes. Carl Balthazar (Cardozo '14) is a defensive presence on the inside, and they have extremely quick guards on the perimeter led by Javin Barton (St. Mary's '15).
The Westchester Knights came in as the #9 seed, and while no one from their team are stars on the H.S. level, they play very well together, run a structured offense, and Michael Bronzo (Fordham Prep '15) is a much improved weapon on the outside.
The Pride is Shenendehowa H.S., and they landed the #10 seed and they had great guard play all weekend, but the play of Brandon Fischer (Shenendehowa '15) on the inside had been key to this point to give them a solid post presence.
Albany City Rocks-Black, a secondary team from the Nike power, was the #12 seed, and it was a couple of hidden gems who starred for them with guard Brandon LaForest (Cohoes '15) and wing Clifton Tracey (Utica-Proctor '15).
Lastly, the #15 seed, and final NY team to make the 2nd round was ICC Truth, a western NY State squad that featured one of Buffalo's best in guard Zach Panebianco (Jamestown '15), and Syracuse area top scorer, fellow guard Trayvon Holt (Monroe '15).
House of Sports played like one of the favorites early on in the playoffs as they tripped up a pair of NY team in the 2nd round and quarterfinals in ICC Truth and The Pride. Against ICC, which is a bit of a smaller team, Nwankwo and Kai Mitchell (Spring Valley '15) really took advantage, dominating the inside and on second chances as they combined for 30 of the teams 55 points. Holt had an impressive showing, proving he can be a player to compete against high level talent, going 8 of 10 from the floor and finishing with 16 points, and even though they were able to keep the deficit to between 10 and 15 all game long, they couldn't chip away, with HOS winning 55-42.
Their game in the quarters against The Pride, who upset the higher seeded Long Island Lightning-Mark in the 2nd round, was a bit more challenging. The Pride didn't have any trouble setting the pace, and their familiarity definitely allowed them to be comfortable against a HOS team with multiple Division 1 products. Fischer was able to bang and compete in the block against the interior bigs of House of Sports, while Kevin Huerter (Shenendehowa '16) was a steady point guard, who at 6'4" was able to see over the guards and get off good long distance shots.
The Pride took a 35-32 lead with 8 minutes to go in the game, but it seemed at that point that HOS turned up the intensity, going on a 15-1 run to take firm control, with Rickey McGill (Spring Valley '15) controlling the play, and getting up and down in transition. Mitchell led the way with 15 points for HOS, and while The Pride were solid shooting over 50% from three for almost the whole game. They finished the last 5 minutes going 1 of 8, and really couldn't maintain the same level of play to end the game, as House of Sports moved onto the semifinals.
Syracuse Select-LoBello singlehandedly took out all of Albany City Rocks, knocking out both the Black team and the Bartlett team, blowing by each by 20+ points and while the Westhill duo was good, it was a pair of underrated and slightly undersized guards in Romero Collier (Henninger '15) and Connor Evans (Cicero-North Syracuse '15). The 6'1" Collier scored 16 against City Rocks-Black, while the 5'11" Evans had 18 against City Rocks-Bartlett, with both proving that they have elite level speed to give defenses fits. Roland combined for 41 in the two games as well to show everyone that this Select team could compete with anyone.
They met the Jersey Shore Warriors though in the quarterfinals, and the Under Armour association seemed to match up well in the perimeter, and took away a lot of Roland's looks, while the other Select guards found issues attacking the rim. Reynolds was the true bright spot for the Syracuse team, scoring 21, knocking down 4 threes, but they fell to the team that would go on to win it all, 63-53, in Jersey Shore's closest win of the tournament.
The Westchester Knights took down Open Season in a battle of local teams, and met the PA Wildcats in the 2nd round, and it just seemed like the Knights were both physically and mentally fatigued as they defensive intensity they have become known for just was not there, and they shots from the perimeter that were on target for most of the tournament were falling short, another sign of tiredness. Bronzo combined for 40 points in the team's two playoff games, and his effort and leadership should make him a very good guard in the CHSAA next season.
The last team left was House of Sports in the semifinals against the #3 seed, Wayne PAL Wolfpack-Halewicz from New Jersey, Each of the top 4 seeds made the semifinals, and a HOS vs. Jersey Shore Warriors matchup was highly anticipated and hoped for by most all throughout the gymnasium at Skidmore College. The Warriors held up their end of the bargain, blowing out Mass Premier, but House of Sports just never seemed to get on track.
They trailed 8-0 out of the gate before head coach Andy Borman called a timeout and really laid into his team, calling them out for lack of intensity and effort in the early going. The team did respond and a Salim Green (Rye Country Day '16) three game them their first lead of the game at 17-16 with 3:35 left in the half, but sloppy defense and questionable shot selection, plus careless turnovers allowed Wayne PAL to regain the lead at the half 27-21.
A post up by Nwankwo where he finished backing in tied the game again at 34 with 7:27 left in the game, and another Green three, he made 3 in the game, gave HOS the lead back at 39-38 at exactly the 6 minute to go mark, but it proved to be their last lead.
Wayne has more success attacking the basket and were able to draw fouls as HOS struggled to hang with a seemingly fresher opponent. Wayne retook the lead and seemed as if they were going to grab the win, but Boz Bernstein (Marianapolis Prep, CT '15) hit his 2nd straight three to tie it back up at 42 with 21 seconds to go, but off the inbounds, the Wolfpack went and connected on a running floater to grab back the lead with 9 seconds to play.
McGill got the ball near midcourt from Mitchell and went to drive to the basket, but the ball was liked away, and the Wayne PAL grabbed the loose ball and got fouled with 2 seconds to go. They sealed it by knocking down both FT's, and a long heave fell well short for HOS, as they were eliminated by the Wayne PAL, 46-42, to put an end to New York's chances of winning the Gym Rat Challenge.
In the title game, it was no contest as Jersey Shore cruised past Wayne PAL 54-26 to be crowned 17u champion.
Congrats to them, as well as Albany City Rocks, who won both the 16u and 15u Gym Rat Challenge titles, and helped make this another fantastic weekend if action in the greater Albany area.