By Christopher Lawlor
NEW YORK – IMG Academy of Bradenton, Florida just entered uncharted waters: The nascent program is one win from a National Championship.
It came out of nowhere Friday afternoon. Actually, it was a stunner considering the opponent and the circumstances.
First, the scene and the situation. Defending champion Montverde (Fla.) Academy was cruising and led by 16 points at the start of the fourth quarter. It should not stun anyone but again the opponent was nationally ranked and now cross state rivals IMG.
There is something to be said about a team that is steadfast when staring into the abyss of elimination. For IMG it was just the beginning and the result was justified after a fast and furious fourth quarter that saw IMG rally to beat Montverde, 74-73, in the GEICO High School Nationals semifinals at Christ the King High School’s Father John Savage Memorial Gymnasium.
The fourth quarter was a doozy. The score was tied four times and IMG even missed three free throws in the final 44 seconds adding to the script. However, the game was about to tilt.
Montverde led 73-72 and just missed a shot with less than 10 seconds remaining and the shot clock ready to bleed dry. IMG rebounded and the sequence of the tournament was ready to unravel.
That’s when Jeremiah Robinson-Earl leaked out on the miss and ensuing IMG defensive rebound. The Villanova-bound forward streaked ahead of the pack, gathered the outlet pass and hammered down a crushing slam-dunk for the ages, and the game’s final points.
But wait there’s more drama.
Montverde appeared to won it with long inbounds pass and dunk at the other end, but coach Kevin Boyle called a timeout nullifying the apparent game-winning deuce. Montverde fans rejoiced briefly but realized they still trailed.
But Montverde’s final began at 4.9 second left and wound up in the hands of senior guard Harlond Beverly, who misfired from the left wing. IMG’s win was legitimate and is a signature moment in the program’s young history.
The Ascenders (29-1) play fourth-seeded Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) or top-seeded La Lumiere School (La Porte, Ind.) in the GEICO Nationals final on Saturday at 12 p.m. EDT on ESPN. The game is preceded by the girls’ final between St. John’s College (Washington, D.C.) and New Hope Academy (Landover Hills, Md.) at 10 a.m. on ESPN 2.
Second-seeded Montverde ended 22-2 with Boyle looking for the program’s fifth GEICO Nationals’ championship.
IMG leaned on three players that accounted for 54 of its 74 points. Arizona-bound Josh Green, a native of Australia, flipped in 12 points; 6-3 junior Jaden Springer had a game-high 23 point, making all 12 free throws and Robinson-Earl added 16 points and snared nine rebounds. North Carolina-bound Armando Bacot, one of three McDonald’s All Americans from IMG, collected eight points and seven rebounds.
Key statistics: Montverde 19 turnovers; IMG had 14. IMG was crushed on the glass, 32-23, but it didn’t matter on Friday.
Despite losing the lead in the fourth, the Eagles were unfazed.
Cade Cunningham (21 points) was money in the final two minute, reeling off baskets on three straight possessions as the Eagles went up 73-71 with less than a minute to go.
Montverde was milking a 16-point lead at the onset of the final quarter but IMG roared back with a 17-1 run that produced a 64-all tie on Jaden Springers twisting reverse layup with 3:40 left. Balsa Koprivica, a Florida State recruit from Serbia, answered for Montverde only 11 seconds later to regain the lead to a short jumper in the lane.
Cunningham helped keep the Eagles with their foot squarely on the Ascenders by draining a transition three-point field goal to end the third quarter for a 16-point bulge at 63-47. Beverly scored nine points in the third, pushing his total to 22.
Beverly’s three-point play with 1:09 left in the third came under heavy pressure in the lane. With three IMG defenders drawing close, Beverly leaned in, flipping his shot over out-stretched arms. Simply magnificent! It was also backbreaking for IMG, which had pulled within seven points.
After IMG chipped away at the first-half lead, the Eagles opened the third quarter with a snappy 9-2 run. Springer interrupted Montverde’s run with 6:21 left to make it 42-29.
Robinson-Earl stepped out and drained a 3-pointer to cut into Montverde’s lead with 4:17 left.
In the first half, more so the first quarter, IMG looked overmatched and Montverde was the confident, driven bunch after taking a surprising 25-8 lead.
By the second period, the Ascenders climbed back into the contest with a 19-10 showing and it was reduced to 35-27 by the intermission.
Springer and Green each tossed in eight points and Robinson-Earl added six for IMG during the initial 16 minutes.
For the game, Montverde’s Beverly, a 6-5 uncommitted senior, scored 23 points, sinking 8 of 16 shots, with three rebounds and three assists. Koprivica added 10 points and five boards while Moses Moody had nine points and four assists. The Eagles connected on 27 o 56 shots for 48.2%.