by Christopher Lawlor
FORT MYERS, Fla. – Maybe there will be more of a test on Friday afternoon for top-seeded Montverde (Fla.) Academy.
The Eagles didn’t get on Thursday in the quarterfinals of the GEICO High School Nationals. The blowout wins are usually reserved for cupcakes on the Montverde’s busy early schedule. But in April? And at a tournament they have won four times? Hardly.
Yet that was case when the Eagles hammered Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.), 85-64, in the Suncoast Credit Union Arena. Once the game progressed into the second half it was apparent the Eagles were getting tripped up like they in 2019 when they lost in the semifinals.
And that’s where they are headed.
“We started with a lot of energy and coach [Kevin] Boyle said were up 11-0 on the offensive boards at halftime. We were bigger and more physical than them [Oak Hill]. We hit the offensive glass and dove for loose balls. We got after it,” said Michigan-bound All-American Caleb Houstan, who added 20 points (7 of 11 accuracy), seven rebounds and two steals.
The Eagles previously defeated Oak Hill, 93-60, on Jan. 16 and 84-66 on Jan. 30. Both games were part of the National Interscholastic Basketball Conference play. The Eagles would eventually capture the inaugural NIBC Championship last month. Today’s win completed an unprecedented three-game season’s sweep of the Warriors.
Oak Hill ended the season at 21-9. Coach Steve Smith, a future Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, fell one win short of 1,200 for his illustrious career. That milestone will be met sometime in November when the Warriors head back to the hardwood with eight returnees provided they all come back.
Five of eight players that saw action for the Eagles, struck for double figures. Tariq Whitehead scored 13 points and cleared nine rebounds, junior center Jalen Duren had 15 points, nine boards and two blocks, Baylor-recruit Langston Love had 11 points and five assists, while junior reserve center Malik Reneau added 12 points and three boards.
Montverde won the rebounding war, 37-18, including 14-5 on the offensive glass, and shot 35 of 59 (59.3 percent).
Junior M.J. Rice led the Warriors with 23 points and four rebounds. The 6-5 Rice, from Durham, N.C., had a bounce back year after tearing his ACL in December 2019. Sophomore Caleb Foster popped in 19 points, making a trio of threes, and seven assists.
Montverde continued to roll in the third quarter and subbed liberally and held a 66-47 edge. The lead swelled to 56-32 with 6:04 remaining. The Eagles continued to push but the Warriors had no answers for Montverde’s long frontline.
The Eagles were in total control by halftime, boasting a 48-30 bulge. It’s rare when Oak Hill trailed by double-digits at halftime in any game but the deeper, more talented Eagles flew past the Boys in Black-and-Red.
The 6-10 Duren, the nation’s No. 2 junior, was a beast in the pivot with 12 points and seven rebounds. Whitehead, a junior from New Jersey, added 11 points and Houston had 10. The most telling numbers of the half were the story on the boards, the Eagles outrebounded OHA, 19-5, including 11 unmatched on offense.
Rice netted eight points by the break and Foster added six for the Warriors, who actually made 12 of 20 shots (60 percent) but the Eagles had more opportunities (20 of 34). Montverde’s tenacious defense was felt with a decisive 15-6 edge in points off turnovers. OHA was outscored by 20 points (36-16) in the paint.
Montverde opened the second quarter with a 15-9 run and the lead pumped up to 17 points on two occasions, including 39-22 with 3:57 left.
Montverde raced to a 6-0 lead and then 15-9 with 3:32 left when Duren completed a three-point play. The Eagles settled for the first quarter’s biggest lead at 24-13 heading into the second.
Uncharacteristically, OHA committed six turnovers that fueled the deficit. MVA shot 11 of 16 for 68.8 percent. Houstan, a 6-10 Canadian, scored six points in the opening period and three others had four. Rice tossed in seven points and Jalen Ricks added four for the Warriors.