LIVINGSTON, N.J. -- While very few people might have witnessed it, Blair Academy's Luol Deng (right) conjured up thoughts of ex-New York Knick great Willis Reed on Wednesday night at the New Jersey State Prep Semifinals.
Despite playing on a bum foot that had him on crutches following the game, Deng was magnificent in a key fourth quarter stretch as the Buccaneers survived a 77-73 decision over the Lawrenceville School at Newark Academy.
Deng scored 14 points in the first half, but was limping around so much on his foot that he didn't even start the third quarter or register a point during the period.
When Lawrenceville's David Whitehurst canned a three pointer to deadlock the game at 53 with 6:05 left in the fourth quarter, things began to look bleak for Blair, which had defeated the Big Red in two prior meetings this season.
Like Reed, who led the Knicks to a world title in 1970 despite a hobbled knee, Deng sparked a 14-3 run that effectively secured the victory for the Buccaneers. During the run, he scored nine straight points, seemingly operating on fumes with his bum heel.
Charlie Villanueva capped the run with a thunderous follow slam that gave Blair a 67-56 lead with 1:37 to play.
Lawrenceville hung around by hitting some shots and quickly fouling the Bucs, but point guard Mike Beers knocked down five of six free throws over the final 51.4 seconds to help salt away the game's outcome.
Deng scored 11 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter, adding to his high school legacy entering the final game of his Blair career on Saturday against St. Benedict's in the State Prep Final.
"He just finds a way to will us to win," Blair Head Coach Joe Mantegna said. "He looked like Larry Bird out there today -- he couldn't move, he was the slowest guy on the court, but he made all the right decisions and he does all of the little things."
Villanueva, the 6-9 Illinois bound forward, was as instrumental as Deng, scoring 24 points and hauling down 18 rebounds for the Bucs. That wasn't lost on Mantegna.
"I thought Charlie knew that he had to step up today," Mantegna said. "I think the good habits that he has been employing for the past month and a half served him well today, because he made some tough rebounds and ran the court hard to get some putbacks. That can really jump start you in a close game."
Blair also got double figures from guards Patrick Davidson (12 points) and Beers (13 points).
Lawrenceville came out of the gate sharp, and thanks to a terrific first quarter effort from sophomore point guard Craig Moore (13 of his team high 23 points), led 21-17 after one period. The Big Red took a 37-36 lead into the half-time break, hoping that the third game would be the charm for them to knock off Blair, which had just defeated Lawrenceville on Sunday afternoon in the Mid Atlantic Prep League (MAPL) Final and back in January in Blairstown.
It looked as if the Bucs would pull away in the third quarter. Thanks to eight points from Villanueva, Blair opened up a 51-44 lead, despite not getting a single point from Deng in the period.
A 9-2 run by Lawrenceville that bridged the third and fourth quarter, capped by Whitehurst's three, knotted the game at 53 and set the stage for Deng's heroic performance.
"When they tied the game, I realized that this is not going to be it for my high school career and that it would be a sad ending to not even make it to the final," Deng said. "I said to myself that it's pain and I can play through it, so I put it to the side and knew that I would be in pain anyway afterward."
Whitehurst, a junior shooting guard from Monmouth, N.J., scored 10 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter to help keep the Big Red afloat. Forward John Chuisano also turned in a nice effort for Lawrenceville, tallying 11 of his 15 points in the second half.