by Christopher Lawlor
FORT MYERS, Fla. – Sean McAloon had a quick message for his IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) players: We are chasing a title as reigning GEICO champions.
True, the Ascenders are the reigning champions and desire for another title was on full display Thursday afternoon in the 12th annual GEICO High School Nationals quarterfinals.
Since there was no GEICO Nationals played in 2020, the Ascenders entered this year’ tournament as the defending champions after beating La Lumiere School (La Porte, Ind.), 66-55, on April 4, 2019 in the final.
And that meant an early trip home for sixth-seeded Milton (Alpharetta, Ga.) during a narrow73-68 loss to the Ascenders at the Suncoast Credit Union Arena. IMG nearly coughed up a 17-point lead in the third quarter as Milton came within a whisker (66-65) with 85 seconds left of completing a miraculous comeback.
IMG breathed a sigh of relief and would not go down in the quarterfinal as they did in 2017 when they were upset by Greensboro (N.C.) Day School.
For Milton it was end to a brilliant campaign and the lone public-school team in the 10-team GEICO field. The Eagles finished 27-3, won the Georgia Class AAAAAAA state championship in March and earned immeasurable national respect. After a 2-2 start, the Eagles carried a 26-game win streak into GEICO, including the Beach Ball Classic title in late December.
Kanaan Carlyle topped the Eagles with 22 points but shot 7 of 21 from the field. Junior Bruce Thornton, an Ohio State commit, had 18 points and six rebounds. Campbell-bound Broc Bidwell added 12 points and junior Kendall Campbell added 11.
IMG dominated three key phases of the offensive stat sheet:
• They held a 22-2 edge in bench points
• They outscored Milton 20-6 in transition
• They crushed it inside with 44-24 point advantage in the paint
• They made 29 of 57 shots
Additionally, the Ascenders never lost their composure and closed in the final minute with a 7-3 run to put it away.
Junior Jaden Bradley, Rochester, N.Y. product, led IMG with 20 points (8 of 10 shooting) and four rebounds. Michigan-bound center Moussa Diabate collected a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds but junior Jarace Walker had the most impact with 16 points, seven boards and three blocks. He also made 7 of 11 shots from the field.
Milton’s sensational sophomore Lebbeus Overton brought thickness into the post. At 6-3, 269 pounds, he’s the top-ranked football recruit from the Class of ESPN, according to ESPN. Overton’s bloodline run deep as his family both parents were college athlete, including dad who was an offensive lineman for the Oklahoma Sooners in the early 1990s. L.T. pushed around the IMG bigs and contributed 10 points, three points, two assists, two blocks and one steal. The “big man” pushed around IMG’s posts, using strength, size and agility. He’s projected to play in the NFL.
IMG’s win wasn’t served on a silver platter.
Just when IMG, which entered the tournament with a 47-day layoff, Milton stormed back to slice into the lead when Thornton drove hard to the rim, finishing with a scoop layup to make it 63-60 with 3:32 left. Milton’s rally was the tightest scoreline since 6-2 in the first quarter. The Eagles cut it to one point before IMG used a late mini surge to end it.
IMG pushed the pace in the third and built a 52-41 lead after the Eagles crept within six points when Thornton drained a 3-pointer from the right wing. But a five-point possession saw Bradley score but miss a foul shot. The offensive rebound gave Tamar Bates an open three pumping the score to 50-39.
With three minutes remaining in the third, the Ascenders tallied six points in transition for a 58-41 edge. Bidwell scored five points in the last two minutes but the Eagles trailed 61-48. Fatigue and IMG’s long bench nearly wore down the Georgia state champions.
In spite of Milton’s pluck play, IMG rarely flinched during a 38-28 edge at the intermission. Walker, who battled an assortment of injuries all season, saw his star rise with 12 point and six rebounds. He added a pair a thunderous, punch-down dunks in the final three minutes of the half when the lead ballooned to 12 points (36-24). Diabate added nine points and five rebounds as IMG made 16 of 27 shots and doubled up Milton, 24-12, for points in the paint. IMG’s depth had 18 points off the bench.
Campbell scored eight points in the opening half and Thornton and Bidwell had five apiece for the Eagles.
IMG took a 13-point edge at 32-19 when junior Noah Batchelor slammed home two. However, the scrappy Eagles clawed back to 32-24 midway through the second. Bidwell’s three from the top of the circle closed the gap to eight points.
IMG started with a flourish. Consider this:
Whenever a team such as IMG shoots 69 percent from the floor (9 of 13 accuracy), it’s going to be trouble. And that’s exactly what size disadvantaged faced and were in a 22-12 hole through one quarter. Milton wanted to run and use the defense to create opportunities at the offensive end. For the Ascenders it suited them fine. Problem is IMG held a 12-5 edge on the boards and Milton connected on just 4 of 17 shots (23.5 percent). Diabate scored nine points to pace the IMG attack.
The Ascenders jumped to a quick 12-4 lead after four minutes. Diabate established himself in the post with three points and redirected two Milton shots on the defensive end. IMG knocked down 4 of 8 shots from the floor.