by Christopher Lawlor
FORT MYERS, Fla. – Caleb Houstan was relatively quiet for 31 minutes on Friday afternoon. The future Michigan man by way of Canada came to Montverde (Fla.) Academy for big-time game like this. The game, the season were on the line and there was little time to plan but the 6 foot 8 forward reacted in an instinctive way.
Houston entered the fourth quarter with only three points but his final shot, a tip-in with 12 seconds left was difference when the Eagles avoided an upset-bid from fourth-seeded AZ Compass Prep (Chandler, Ariz.) during a pulsating 51-49 win the semifinals of the GEICO High School Nationals at Suncoast Credit Union Arena on the campus of Florida SouthWestern State College.
With the ball hanging around the rim and the shot clock ticking down to zero, an errant shot hit the rim, resetting the clock, and allowing Houstan bat home the winning points. Houstan finished with five points (on 2 of 9 shooting) and seven rebounds but senior Ty Ty Washington would have the last say.
Or would he?
AZ Prep’s All-American guard was given the last shot and went for the win. Washington pulled up for a game-winning 3-pointer but it missed and the Eagles were back in the GEICO final for the first time since they last won it in 2018.
The Eagles had handed AZ Compass its only other loss of the season, 76-65, in overtime on Jan. 28. Make it two wins … barely. The Dragons, who won the Grind Session World Championship in March, concludes 28-2. There are big doings moving forward for the fourth-year program coached by Chicago native Ed Gibson.
The fourth quarter was dizzying especially the final two minutes. Washington gave his team a 47-46 lead at 1:48. Senior Ryan Nembhard entered the score sheet dropping in a 3-pointer for 49-47 edge. Washington added a clutch basket to tie it at 49 with 53 ticks to go. That set up Houstan’s last-second heroics.
Junior center Jalen Duren paced the winners with 14 points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots. Dariq Whitehead scored 13 points, junior center Jalyn Reneau bucketed 10 and Nembhard collected five points and nine assists.
Washington, one of the nation’s top uncommitted seniors, finished with 15 points and five assists and senior forward Alden Applewhite added 11 points. The Dragons forced 11 turnovers for 17 points. Montverde outrebounded the Phoenix area charter school, 37-19.
Midway through the fourth, the Dragons unleashed a 9-0 run, featuring threes from the Mississippi State-bound Applewhite and Storrs surged ahead 45-44. Applewhite’s corner three-ball knotted the score at 42 at 4:54.
With Montverde on the verge of putting away the scrappy Dragons, it didn’t happen. The Eagles were up 10 point with three minutes but Storr scored four points and Washington connected on a gorgeous floater in the lane and it was 42-33 after three.
Montverde seized control in the second quarter and took a 28-9 lead. Reneau, Whitehead and Duren all contributed at both ends. After Washington’s 3-pointer tied it at 12, the Eagles rattled off 10 unanswered points to make it 22-12. Montverde pushed it 12 points on Duren’s turnaround jumper but Washington scored with 3 seconds left to reduce the deficit to single digits at halftime.
Reneau scored 10 points while Duren and Whitehead had eight apiece. Washington had seven pints and Applewhite six, on two 3s, to keep the Dragons within striking distance. The Dragons committed nine turnovers and Montverde shared the ball with nine assists.
In a scary moment, AZ Compass was dealt a blow with two minutes left in the second, 7-0 junior Adrame Diongue went down with an apparent leg injury and was helped off the court. He returned in the third quarter after receiving treatment and had four points, four rebounds and four blocks.
Nembhard, a Creighton-bound point guard, helped the Eagles regain their composure dishing out five assists, including a pair to Reneau, who converted two layups in the final minute, for a 10-9 lead. Applewhite canned a 3-pointer for the Dragons in the low scoring opening quarter.
AZ Prep had no fear of the vaunted Eagles and jumped to a quick 9-4 lead when Josh Uduje canned a jumper at 3:27.