by Christopher Lawlor
FORT MYERS, Fla. – When Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) is scoring points that means a breakneck style of play is percolating. Yes, the Warriors are accustomed to the up-tempo offense and high-pressure defense to fuel the attack.
Usually, the in-your-face defense feeds the offense.
And for spurts on Wednesday night, it was the Warriors of old that emerged. There were crevices in OHA’s game and on at least three occasions Pace Academy (Atlanta, Ga.) might have taken a lead or at least tied the game.
Yet, the Warriors were about to get eliminated in a play-in game in their 11th appearance at the GEICO High School Nationals. When the game was on the line, Caleb Foster produced a whale of a game and the Warriors stopped eighth-seeded Pace Academy, 84-74, on opening night of the prestigious schoolboy tournament staged for the first time at Suncoast Credit Union Arena on the campus of Florida SouthWestern State College.
Foster, a sophomore point guard, did it all, pacing four double-digit scorers with 23 points, seven assists and three rebounds. Junior M.J. Rice, a serious candidate for the McDonald’s All-American Game in 2022, added 18 points while A.J. Williams had 19 points and seven assists and senior Camryn Carter collected 16 points and eight assists.
Pace dipped to 28-2 after a courageous performance that saw the Knights drop the deficit to one point but OHA’s defense clamped down on three straight possessions denying the Atlantans a lead.
Pace’s Florida State-bound Matt Cleveland fired in a game-high 30 points, making 12 of 18 shots (2 of 3 on 3-pointers) and clearing eight rebounds in his final high school game. Junior Josh Reed scored 21 points but made only 3 of 9 threes, Cole Middletown had 16 points, eight rebounds and four steals and senior point guard Madison Durr had seven points and seven assists.
OHA won it shooting 57.1 percent from the floor on 32 of 56 accuracy and outrebound the Knights, 30-26. The most telling statistic was forcing 12 turnovers and owning Pace, 20-9, on points off the miscues. Pace made 29 of 53 shots but it wasn’t enough.
In the fourth quarter, Pace battled back within one point when Cleveland dove to the rim off a cut and could have tied it but missed a free throw at 69-68. On the next possession, Cleveland was fouled with 5:14 left and might have tied or taken the lead but missed the front end of the one and one. Justin McBride gave OHA a 71-68 converting a transition dunk with 4:28 left. That spurred a 13-6 run to end the game.
However, just when the Warriors appeared to pull away, Pace kicked the door open with an 11-2 tear to close the third and only trailed 68-64. Reed canned a 3-pointer and Cleveland nailed a shot from the elbow with 13 seconds left to conclude the period.
OHA gained separation early in the third quarter and actually led by 13 points, 66-53, when Williams canned a 3-pointer at 3:12. The Knights continued to push the pace and whittled it down to 66-57 with two minutes left in the third. OHA was sizzling in the first six minutes of the third, making 8 off 11 shots from the floor and 3 of 5 from downtown. Pace hit 7 of its first 10 shots in the quarter.
The Warriors are used to scoring points in gobs, having reached the 100-point mark in seven games while averaging more than 80 points per game.
Leading 45-41 at the break, the Warriors were not out of the woods. Cleveland netted a 17 points as the Knights hit 15 of 25 shots for 60 percent. OHA was equally hot from the floor, making 19 off 33 with five 3-pointers. The Warriors held a 14-12 edge on the boards and both teams were efficient inside with 26 points apiece in the paint.
There was one tie and no leads changes in the opening 16 minutes. OHA’s Foster had 12 points and four assists, Carter scored eight points and Rice had 11 points, making 4 of 8 shots. Middleton, a Cleveland State recruit, added 10 points and three steals for Pace.
The Georgia Class AA champions did not wilt under the up-tempo pace in the second period. They closed within 37-33 with 5:03 left when Reed converted a traditional three-point play. The 6-6 forward has offers from Xavier, Georgia and Oklahoma State. Rice made it 39-33 with an emphatic slam-dunk off a feed from Foster at 4:50.
The second play-in game started out with a bang as the team’s combined for 47 points and Oak Hill took a 27-20 lead. The Warriors were up 10 points (23-13) with two minutes left in the period but Pace changed from a man defense, which was sliced to ribbons, to a zone that sprung runouts in the final minute. Middleton and Cleveland added slam dunks during the final 60 second to reduce the deficit to seven points.
OHA went 11 of 20 from the floor with three made 3-pointers. The Warriors largest lead was 27-15. Foster led all scorers with 13 points for the Warriors and Cleveland (10 points) and Middleton (nine) teamed for 21.