By Christopher Lawlor
NEW YORK – Ask Sam Caldwell about the significance of buying into team defense.
“We have players with skill sets at both ends of the floor; you have to buy into defense if you want to win championships. The girls and our coaches take a lot of pride in the defense. No one walks in practice and everyone is diving for lose balls. It’s a team mindset,” said Caldwell, the girls’ coach at New Hope Academy (Landover Hills, Md.)
And with that the nation’s No. 1 team and top seed here lost for only the second time this season. Top-ranked Miami (Fla.) Country Day fell victim to a suffocating defense and were on the downside of a 14-5 spree in the third quarter on Friday afternoon.
Final: New Hope Academy 60, Miami Country Day 52 in GEICO High School Nationals girls’ semifinals at Christ the King High School’s Father John Savage Memorial Gymnasium.
“We don’t want anyone in the paint,” Jada Walker said of New Hope’s defensive stance. “We wanted to play Miami [Country Day] and try to beat them this time.”
MCD beat New Hope Academy, 61-60, in overtime at the Nike Tournament of Champions semifinals in December. MCD won the TOC and had their win streak snapped at 22 games.
So, New Hope Academy aims for its first-ever GEICO Nationals title and will meet second-seeded St. John’s College (Washington, D.C.) or Centennial (Las Vegas, Nev.) Saturday at 10 a.m. EDT on ESPN2. Caldwell, who guided Riverdale Baptist School (Upper Marlboro, Md.) to a pair of GEICO Nationals’ crowns, is going for the coaching trifecta.
New Hope did not let in the third quarter. After four minutes it was 41-34 and MCD looked doomed. MCD’s offense dried up and the offensive flow was cut off with the on-ball defense.
MCD closed the campaign at 26-2 and was denied a third GEICO Nationals crown. The Spartans (26-2) won a sixth straight Florida state championship in February.
Just when it appeared the Tigers would run away in the fourth quarter, MCD staged a rally, slicing the deficit to eight points at 51-43. New Hope carried a 13-point lead in to the final stanza and when Jada Walker knocked down a perimeter jumper it was 49-34 with 3:13 left.
A 9-2 run over 180 seconds gave MCD hope. Junior Milani McCormack swished a corner three-ball and suddenly it was 51-46.
Any prospects of an MCD comeback were dashed with 1:27 as Ezeh converted an offensive rebound for a 56-48 edge. Senior Jennifer Ezeh finished with 12 points and four rebounds.
Sophomore guard Jada Walker topped the Tigers with 14 points, including three 3-pointers, Kyle Kornegay-Lucas added 12 (10 of 18 on free throws), seven rebounds and five assists, while Demi Washington scored 10 and pulled down 10 boards.
The Tigers made 20 of 32 free throws and maintained a 30-20 rebounding edge.
South Florida-bound Maria Alvarez, who has played on the team since seventh grade and has six state and two national championship titles on her dossier, did not score from the field but accumulated seven made free throws for her points. Alvarez was saddled with early foul trouble.
“It’s a tough loss for me personally; I’ve played here at Miami Country Day since seventh grade,” she said. “Today they were more aggressive than us and played harder.”
Koi Love, a Vanderbilt recruit, pumped in a game-high 21 points and snatched 11 rebounds.
“New Hope [Academy] got up and down the floor and were confident especially when Maria [Alvarez] was out with fouls,” Love said.
Midway through the second quarter, MCD held a 25-21 advantage and began looking inside to their 6-9 post Chantell Gonzalez, who entered the score sheet and was a intimidating presence.
New Hope finally took the lead at 2:50 with a flurry of five points in five seconds. The Duke-bound Ezeh swished a three and on the inbounds, Kornegay-Lucas made a steal and quick deuce to made it 28-27.
New Hope closed the half on a 5-1 run, capped by Walker’s transition 3-pointer with 2 seconds left. MCD, the nation’s top-ranked team was outpointed 19-10 in the period. MCD was sloppy with the ball, committing 12 turnovers with New Hope’s pesky fullcourt pressure the demon. MCD misfired from distance, making just 30% of threes (3 of 10).
Theodule Emani was MCD’s primary long-ball threat with three 3s for nine points and Love scored 14 with seven rebounds. New Hope spread the wealth with seven players scoring, led by the Virginia-commit Kornegay-Lucas (eight points) and Walker (seven) in the first 16 minutes.
MCD came out shooting in the first quarter and stretching the New Hope defense. The Spartans nailed 3 of 6 shots from three-point land en route to a 19-14 edge. Love did the most damage with eight points.
New Hope kept up with the Spartans when the game was on the verge of slipping away. A quick burst of points in the final two minutes was keyed by Walker and balanced scoring from four players.
“When you come to this event you never have an easy game and we’re only looking to schedule the best,” MCD coach Ochiel Swaby said. “We didn’t show up today and were outplayed and with Maria Alvarez out of the game the others did not step up. Give credit to our opponent [New Hope], they played with more desire and were more physical today.”