Junior sensation Monta Ellis brought his "A" game to the Marshall County Hoopfest, and it was almost enough to propel Lanier (Miss.) High School to a victory over the No. 1 ranked team in the country Oak Hill Academy. Despite his efforts, Oak Hill held on for an 80-75 win in front of a capacity crowd of approximately 6,000 fans.
Oak Hill took control of the game early with a smothering press and by relentlessly attacking the rim on offense. At the end of the first quarter, Oak Hill was up 22 to 12 and looked to be on their way to a blowout.
But then Ellis began pouring in his 41 points, making 7 of 7 from the line and shooting 14 of 31 from the field, with six of those coming from behind the arc.
Ellis's effort certainly caught the attention of Oak Hill.
"I only have one thing to say," said junior KC Rivers, who spent much of the game guarding Ellis. "Monta Ellis is a great player. He really makes you work on defense."
Oak Hill coach Steve Smith commented, "I told our guys before the game he was good, hopefully now they believe me."
And perhaps as important as Ellis' points were the three charges he took on Oak Hill point guard Rajon Rondo in the second half. The first two charges occurred on the first two Oak Hill possessions of the second half.
It was at this point that Oak Hill's Josh Smith (Indiana) took over the game, finishing with 31 points on 10 of 16 shooting and even running the point at times. Up 44-28 at the start of the second half, Oak Hill still finished the quarter with a thirteen point lead without the services of their play maker.
"I have never been in foul trouble," said Rondo. "This was the first time. When the team really needed me, it was frustrating that I couldn't be there for them . But Josh took over the game."
The game stayed around a 10 point difference until Rondo picked up his fifth foul with 2:17 left in the game and Oak Hill up 72 to 63.
At this point Ellis hit a three to make it 72 to 66. Then freshman Al Graham, who had an outstanding second half at the point guard position, stole the ball and fed Ellis, who slammed it home for a three point play, cutting the lead to three.
But Smith answered on the other end with a huge baseline drive and dunk.
Lanier managed to cut the lead to three points two more times but could never get any closer.
Oak Hill played aggressively, even when the momentum turned against them and the crowd began cheering for the underdog.
"We try not to get in a tough situation like tonight very often," said Coach Smith. "Our kids think they are going to blowout every team we play, but I keep telling them there are going to be five to six games a year where we get in foul trouble, or someone gets hurt, or someone makes everything like Ellis tonight. We had a hard time with Rajon out getting into our offense, although we only had seven turnovers."
Although playing limited minutes, Rondo finished with a strong stat line of 14 points, six assists, and six rebounds.
Both teams shot over 50 percent from the field. However, Oak Hill had to overcome a 10 of 24 shooting night from the free throw line. Josh Smith hit only five of his 11 attempts, missing two front ends down the stretch.
Oak Hill out rebounded the much smaller Lanier team by a whopping 52 to 29 advantage. Brian Johnson (Louisville) and Dayshawn Wright (Syracuse) combined for 29 rebounds, matching the team total of Lanier.
Lanier's only big man Charles Rhodes (Mississippi State) captured seven rebounds and finished with16 points.
Smith was named the game's MVP, but in a classy show of sportsmanship, gave the award to Ellis.
"I felt he deserved it," said Smith about his generous offering. "He was very competitive and showed the crowd what he was made of. He really proved himself tonight."