by Christopher Lawlor
FORT MYERS, Fla. – The Montverde (Fla.) Academy are the gold standard of high school basketball.
That’s simply undisputable.
When you capture a fifth GEICO High School Nationals championship in nine years that’s where the conversation begins. The Eagles added a ring for the thumb on Saturday afternoon following a 62-52 victory over second-seeded Sunrise Christian Academy (Bel Aire, Kan.) at the Suncoast Credit Union Arena on the campus of Florida SouthWestern State College.
When Kevin Boyle was lured to the central Florida private school a decade ago from St. Patrick (Elizabeth, N.,J.) his mandate was to build a championship-caliber program. Boyle’s basketball acumen and the allure of a national schedule with few restrictions clinched it.
It should have been a sixth GEICO Nationals crown but the pandemic canceled the 2020 tournament denying superstars Cade Cunningham, who earlier in the week declared for the NBA Draft after one year at Oklahoma State, and Scottie Barnes (Florida State), a future pro.
Last year’s Eagles went 25-0 and won games by an average of 40 points but this year the record was a near-perfect 24-1. Afterwards Boyle was humbled by the championship moment.
“It was very rewarding because of last year’s team that some call the greatest high school team of all time. This year we had a mixture of new guys and ones who waited their turn,” he said.
Montverde’s two-year ledger is 49-1 for a .980 winning percentage. The Eagles beat Sunrise in three of four meetings this season. They dropped an overtime game to the Buffaloes, 69-66. The Eagles then beat Sunrise when it counted the most. First at the inaugural National Interscholastic Basketball Conference (NIBC) Tournament final and then at GEICO Nationals.
It’s time to build another trophy case and make room for a banner.
Leading up to the championship game, all the top seeds advanced. The Eagles captured all three games, including a pulse thickening semifinal win over shorthanded AZ Compass Prep (Chandler, Ariz.).
Montverde has spread its five titles to three states. In 2013, the Eagles won it on a buzzer at Georgetown Prep in North Bethesda, Md. The next two (2014, ’15) were captured at the World’s Most Famous Arena, Madison Square Garden, on Broadway. In 2018, R.J. Barrett was the MVP at Christ the King High School’s Father John Savage Gymnasium in the Queens, N.Y. neighborhood of Middle Village.
And now it’s Suncoast Credit Union Arena a mere long jump shot (or three hours) from Montverde’s tony campus west of Orlando.
All roads lead to Montverde Academy and the five GEICO National championships are the roadmap.
Creighton-bound Ryan Nembhard had 12 points and three assists and credits his coach with all the glory of winning.
“Coach Boyle does a great job. He tells us this is a process and everyone buys into it,” Nembhard, whose brother Andrew (now at Gonzaga) also won the GEICO title at Montverde.
Caleb Houstan, the Canadian bound for Michigan, had 16 points and four assists. Baylor-signee Langston Love collected 13 points, seven rebounds and five assists and junior center Jalen Duren just fell short of a double-double with nine points and nine boards.
Montverde controlled the war on the boards at 31-22 and made 29 of 49 shots for 51 percent. However, the 10 of 22 made shots from 3-point range really stretch Sunrise and opened the middle for Duren and Malik Reneau.
Sunrise, which finished 21-4, received 14 points and six assists from Michigan State-bound Jaden Akins. Kendall Brown, a Baylor signee, scored 11. Kennedy Chandler had nine points and seven assists while junior Gradey Dick scored nine.
Montverde’s fifth championship was in limbo until the perfect third quarter.
If the opening two quarters were a slog for the Eagles that changed in the third quarter. The crushed it in the period, hitting all 12 shots for a 51-38 lead. Sunrise called two timeouts to stem the tide but it did not halt Montverde’s progress. The Eagles went inside and then relied on Love’s shooting from three-point range, where he nailed a trio of them.
The most scintillating play of the four day was Duren’s one-handed, hammer-like slam dunk off a lob feed from Nembhard late in the third. Nembhard lulled the defense for a split second before lofting the pass to Duren on the weakside. Duren’s timing was impeccable with a full stretch and delivering the knockout punch that left Sunrise in awe.
Truly, a sight to behold.
Nembhard said his team set the tone in third after countless hours of practice.
“We had 16 more minutes and that’s nothing compared to what we’ve done all year,” he said of Montverde’s slim 23-21 lead.
It was an intensely played defensive-oriented first 16 minutes. Perhaps the nerves factored into the sporadic play but the Eagles settled for a 23-21 edge. There were three ties in the second quarter before Reneau converted an offensive rebound from a Houstan miss.
Nembhard gave the Eagles their first lead at 18-16 with 2:01 left. Chandler evened the score 45 seconds later. Houstan drilled an NBA 3-pointer from the right wing to make it 21-18. Chandler matched that effort with a three and it was 21-all.
Nembhard (nine points) and Houstan (six) scored 15 of Montverde’s 23 points. Sunrise’s Chandler, a Tennessee recruit and the nation’s top-ranked point guard, struck for seven points and Dick added four.
The shots weren’t falling with the Eagles making 9 of 25 shots and the Buffaloes were not much better at 9 of 23.
Montverde suffered through a shooting drought, missing on nine straight attempts but finally Nembhard drilled a 3-pointer with 4:12 left in the half to square the score at 11.
Sunrise took an 11-8 lead into the second quarter. With the score tied at 8, Brown canned a deep 3-pointer with 32 seconds for the edge. Brown tossed in seven points in the first.
Both teams started slow, looking to wipe the sleep out of their eyes with a noontime tipoff. Once the game revved up and the nerves settled, Montverde completed the task with a fifth GEICO Nationals title.