by Christopher Lawlor
FORT MYERS, Fla. – Kennedy Chandler showed he can flat-out dominate a game. Really, he can, and he did on Friday afternoon on high school basketball’s biggest stage.
Just when Sunrise Christian Academy (Bel Aire, Kan.) was headed to the exits, trailing by seven points in the fourth quarter, the future Tennessee Volunteer and McDonald’s All-American rose to the occasion.
Chandler, a rising star from Memphis, Tenn., scored 11 of his game-high 25 points in the final quarter and the Buffaloes topped third-seeded IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.), 70-63, in the semifinals of the GEICO High School Nationals at the Suncoast Credit Union Arena on the campus of Florida SouthWestern State College.
The Buffaloes move into the GEICO Nationals final for the first time and beat IMG for the second this this season.
“We still have heart even when we’re down,” Chandler said afterwards. He finished also contributed five rebounds, five assists and drained 6 of 8 shots but his playmaking ability, leadership and defense also figured into the victory.
Chandler’s seminal sequence came in the last 2 minutes, 11 seconds. He bottomed a 3-pointer from deep on the left wing to give the lead for good at 62-60. Less than a minute later, he entered the spin cycle with a crafty, jaw-dropping scoop layup to make it 64-60. The Buffaloes cashed in at the free throw line, making 14 of 17 in the fourth.
Chandler had plenty of help as Jaden Akins added 14 points, Baylor-bound Kendall Brown had 10 points and five assists, junior Gradey Dick had eight points, 10 rebounds and two steals and Zach Clemence six points and four boards.
IMG ended the season 21-3.
Jaden Bradley led the Ascenders with 18 points and six assists. Jett Howard had 12, Tamar Bates 11 and Michigan-signee Moussa Diabate eight points and two rebounds.
The Buffaloes won it with a 21-11 showing in the final quarter. But it was seriously in doubt with Bradley triggering the IMG attack.
Bradley, one of the nation’s top juniors with all the blue-blood programs recruiting him, helped the Ascenders to a 60-57 lead with six points in five minutes. He started with a three-point play and then hit three of four free throws. Michigan State-bound Akin, who was not gun shy, hoisted a shot from downtown that would have tied it with less than four minutes left.
Things heated up in the third quarter when the teams absorbed body blows but IMG used a 26-17 spurt for a 52-49 lead. The game morphed into a slugfest with eight lead changes in the final four minutes. Bradley scored the last four of the quarter, rallying IMG from a 49-48 deficit.
With four minutes left in the third, Howard splashed his third three-ball of the game, drawing the Ascenders within a point at 41-40. Diabate also looked like a gazelle in transition, finishing a fastbreak with a twisting layup over two defenders.
Following a slow start, Sunrise played like gangbusters and carried a 32-26 lead into halftime. Akins’ second 3-pointer of the half gave the Buffaloes a temporary 26-19 with 2:52 left. Bates then powered in five points, including a clutch three, and Walker had a layup to beat the first-half buzzer and the breakneck pace paused for the intermission.
Seven players scored for IMG with Bates clicking for seven points. Bates recently decommitted from Texas when coach Shaka Smart left for Marquette.
Chandler showed why he is the nation’s No. 10-rated senior, contributing 10 points and two assists. Akins had eight and Dick added five point and grabbed six boards. The Buffaloes were efficient shooting at 12 of 22 (54.5 percent). They also received 10 points from nonstarters.
In the GEICO Nationals, no lead is safe and that goes for IMG, which held the early upper hand watched as Sunrise roared back with eight unanswered points for a 14-11 lead through one quarter. Akins, who did not score in 13 minutes of action in the quarterfinals, nailed a 3-pointer with 41 seconds left, snapping an 11-all deadlock.
IMG bounced out to a strong start with leads of 9-2 and 9-7. Bradley scored four points as the Ascenders made 6 of their first 9 shots and capitalized in transition with six points.