By Christopher Lawlor
NEW YORK – This team checks all the boxes.
Where to begin?
Coaching: Kevin Boyle is the current national coach of the year by several national outlets. Check.
Star players: RJ Barrett, you’ve heard of him, is headed to Duke and was named national player of the year by several outlets. He played in the McDonald’s All American Game and will do the same next week in the Jordan Brand Classic in nearby Brooklyn. Plus, the roster chock full of Division I players, including several from Europe and Asia. Check.
History: In the last six years, they’ve won four GEICO High School Nationals crowns, including a run of three from 2013 to 2015. In nine years, they’ve reached the GEICO final seven times. Check.
That check mate for top-ranked Montverde (Fla.) which defeated No. 2 University School (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.), 76-58, Saturday afternoon in the GEICO Nationals final at Christ the King High School’s Father John Savage Memorial Gymnasium.
It also gave the Eagles the unofficial national championship and Florida state title between the powerhouses. Montverde does not compete for a Florida High School Athletic Association state title and the Sharks won the Class 5A championship earlier this month.
Congratulations, Montverde, the hardware is going back to central Florida for the first time since 2015.
“This group restored us to the top again,” said Boyle, who completed his first unbeaten season of his career. “Ben Simmons and DeAngelo Russell didn’t go undefeated but the team did. They are a credit to our school and the program.
“Our kids attend school in a structured and disciplined environment and that extends to the court.”
The much anticipated meeting was well played and fulfilled the prophecy of Paragon Marketing’s partner Rashid Ghazi, who created the event 10 years ago when it was played in Maryland.
“I always thought it would be neat if the No. 1 team played the No. 2 team at our event and give people an idea of who is truly the nation’s No. 1 team. There’s no debate how the ranking services rank teams this year and the GEICO Nationals gave both University and Montverde a platform to play a game at a high level for high stakes,” he said.
The Montverde faithful could touch it early in the fourth quarter when Barrett unleashed a spin move and then sliced through the University defense for a 20-point bulge. Scottie Barnes lost his cool on Barrett’s spin move and was assessed a technical foul.
Karrington Davis nailed a 3-pointer to zoom Montverde’s lead to 26 points, 70-44, with 4:54 left.
Barrett wrote the final line of his storied prep career with a minute left, flying to the hoop and slamming in the deuce that put a bow on it.
Frustration, anguish defeat … that summed up University’s afternoon the Middle Village neighborhood in the borough of Queens.
The highlights of the day were Vernon Carey Jr. slamming home a rebound midway through the fourth. Carey, the nation’s No. 2 player in the Class of 2019, finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds. Barnes showed why he is one of the nation’s top sophomore by tallying 24 points. But it wasn’t enough.
“I was struggling the whole game; every time I touched the ball they [Montverde] were doubling me,” Carey said.
Said Boyle: “Balsa Koprivica matched up well with Vernon Carey and that goes back to our team structure and discipline.”
Barrett closed with 25 points and 15 rebounds; Michael Devoe had 21 points, making 8 of 10 shots, including five 3-pointers and Filip Petrusev added 15 points.
“This was the cherry on top of the cake for the season and time here at Montverde,” Barrett said.
Montverde left no doubt in the third quarter after Nembhard buried a deep 3-pointer for a 54-37 lead. They stretched to 59-44 after three and it would have been more but Carey’s 3-pointer beat the buzzer. Barnes was the workhorse for the Sharks with 13 points in the period.
The action picked up in the second quarter and the pace favored Montverde, which led 35-36. Nembhard’s driving layup with 3.3 seconds to go, gave the Eagles a nine-point edge and momentum heading into the final 16 minutes.
The opening half featured one score tied and a lead change.
Carey was limited to four points and six rebounds, while Barnes carried the University scoring load with nine. Petrusev topped the Eagles with points while Barrett had nine on a balanced score sheet.
University (36-2) scored the game’s first six points before the Eagles knew what hit them. After a few adjustments and the nerves calmed, Boyle’s team went on a 14-4 run to end the period and take a 14-10 lead. Petrusev continued his scoring from the semifinals, where he scored 21 points, by netting five.
Neither team shot the ball particularly well as they combined for 11 of 32 as the pressure man defense ruled.
A fourth GEICO crown is quite impressive but the coach knew came with strings attached.
“I have a very short attention span; I move on to the next day,” Boyle said. “I’m satisfied and relieved about winning this one. I felt the pressure to win this year; I had to excel with this team.”
Barrett captained the GEICO Nationals all-tournament, earning the Most Valuable Player, he was joined by teammate Nembhard and University’s Carey and Barnes and Steven Ashworth of Lone Peak (Highland, Utah), whose team lost to Montverde in the quarterfinals. Ashworth is headed to Utah State after serving a two year LDS mission in Indiana.
“The biggest thing I learned this year is I can take my game to another level,” said Barrett, a decorated player for the Canadian Junior National Team.
That’s good news for the Duke Blue Devils, but be forewarned: Look out ACC!