By Christopher Lawlor
NEW YORK – Two years ago IMG Academy of Bradenton, Florida came to the GEICO High School Nationals with an air of confidence as a tournament debutant. They came out flat and lost.
Fast-forward to Thursday afternoon and the Ascenders were different team, featuring three McDonald’s All Americans and a coaching change.
What a difference 723 days makes.
Those super-sized trio of All Americans were an inside presence but the junior duo of Jaden Springer and Noah Farrakhan were more than a handful, combining to score 45 points, and third-seeded IMG buried sixth-seeded Sunrise Christian Academy (Bel Aire, Kan.), 65-50, Thursday in the opening quarterfinal game at the GEICO High School Nationals quarterfinals in Christ the King High School’s Father John Savage Memorial Gymnasium.
Sunrise Christian concluded its season at 22-6.
The Ascenders (27-1 overall) advanced to the semifinals and will play the winner of second-seeded and defending champions Montverde (Fla.) Academy and seventh-seeded University (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) Friday at 2 p.m. EDT.
The offensive output by the IMG guard tandem accounted for three-quarters of their offense. Farrakhan struck for 19 points, clicking on 3 of 5 shots from three-point range, and added two assists and two rebounds. Meanwhile, the 6-3 Springer, a whippet in transition, dropped in a game-high 26 points, making 11 of 14 shots from the floor and two 3-pointers, while dishing out four assists and grabbing two rebounds.
Armando Bacot, one of the McDonald’s selections and headed to North Carolina in the fall, scored eight points but added 10 rebounds and more importantly protected the rim and for the most part silenced Sunrise’s 7-footer N’Faly Dante, who wound up with eight points and eight boards—well below his
IMG needed to hold off the Buffaloes, who won 22 games and had a sold regular season résumé, and at the onset of the final quarter it was the backcourt that ran roughshod.
Farrakhan bucketed three successive baskets, including a 3-pointer, and the lead zoomed to 57-44. Finally the Ascenders had finally extracted that painful memory from the 2017 GEICO Nationals.
IMG picked up in the third quarter were they left off in the second and built a 10-point bulge, 47-37. The Ascenders turned up the defense, which gave them easy transition layups and dunks. IMG was up 19 points midway through the third, 42-23, when the Buffaloes charged back into it as Jalyn Turner’s three-ball from the left wing reduced the deficit under double-digits at 45-37. Bryce Cook’s twisting layup, ducking under two Sunrise defenders with 6.5 second to go gave the Floridians that 10-point advantage.
The Ascenders were refreshed in the initial 67 seconds of the third quarter as the Villanova-bound center Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (eight points, five rebounds) had back-to-back slam dunks and Farrakhan’s long three-point field goal bumped to edge to 15 points at 38-23.
IMG made it 40-23 at 4:55 of the third on Springer’s breakaway dunk and the IMG faithful were delirious.
After a slow start, IMG led 31-23 at the break. Springer scored 12 points to fuel the attack.
The Ascenders were up by as many as 11 points early in the second quarter as Sunrise had the upper hand in the early going. Sunrise’s Grant Sheffield buried four free throws in the final 2:22 of the half to pull his team within eight points at 29-21. Sheffield finished with a team-high 13 points.
With 44 seconds left in the half, Farrakhan canned two free throws to close out the scoring for the opening 16 minutes.
Jarace Walker’s unreserved dunk in transition capped an 11-0 spurt that bridged two quarters 5:40 of the second. Dante’s putback slam at the rim quelled the run of points on the next possession to trim IMG’s lead to 24-15.
Sunrise did not look like the GEICO debutant in the opening four minutes and led 11-8 as Dante buried a pair of 3-pointers. The Buffaloes were setting up on the right wing in an attempt to counter IMG’s post presence.
Yet it was IMG, which took a 15-13 lead after one quarter using defense and a 3-pointer in the final seconds. Bryce Cook was called for traveling with 4.5 seconds left after a strong defensive stance in the paint. That allowed Springer to gather the ensuing inbounds pass, race up the floor unfettered and drain a trey from the top of the key.
IMG’s defense was stellar, holding Sunrise 19 of 42 from the floor and only 6 of 19 from downtown for 31.5%. IMG found its rhythm in the second quarter and went on to shoot 27 of 47 for 57.4%. IMG held a slight edge on the boards at 27-25. Jordan Turner added eight points for Sunrise.