By Christopher Lawlor
NEW YORK – National championships are never assumed at Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.). The winning culture at America’s team won’t allow it. You’d figure it even though nine No. 1 banners are hanging from their hallowed Turner Gymnasium in rural southwestern Virginia.
The second-seeded Warriors took first step of the postseason in hope of hoisting another banner to the rafters on Thursday afternoon. They did so in impressive fashion after pasting seventh-seeded Garfield (Seattle, Wash.), 75-53, at the GEICO High School Nationals quarterfinals at Christ the King High School’s Father John Savage Memorial Gymnasium.
Next up for the Warriors is third-seeded University School (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) and mammoth junior Vernon Carey Jr. in the semifinals on Friday at 3 p.m. EDT on ESPN2.
“He [Carey] scored 29 points against us earlier this year,” OHA coach Steve Smith. “We’ll talk as a staff and think about what we will do different this team but he’s a talent.”
The Warriors (44-1) last captured the GEICO Nationals—when it was known as the DICK’S Nationals—in 2016 on a buzzer-beating, tip-in at raucous Madison Square Garden.
“Coach [Steve] Smith said the biggest game is the first one in a tournament. It’s one and done; we played well defensively,” said Will Richardson, who is a top-notch point guard and headed to Oregon in the fall.
The Bulldogs (28-2) concluded a championship season with a trip to New York and the program’s first state title since 2015 and the first for Roy as Garfield’s head coach. Last year he guided crosstown rivals Nathan Hale (Seattle) to a state crown.
“It’s a great experience for the players to play in big moments and in New York. This is a big event and it’s disappointing that we did not get off to a good start. Oak Hill is a great program and we were a little nervous in the first quarter missing some bunnies. We’ll return five guys that knows what it takes to get here,” Garfield coach Brandon Roy, who played seven seasons in the NBA and starred at the hometown Washington Huskies.
Garfield’s average margin of victory was 20 points but they were held well below their season average of 77 points per outing.
“I thought our defense was good in the fist half and not so good in the second half,” Smith said.
Garfield trailed 62-45 when Edward Turner drained a long, 3-pointer from the left wing with four minutes left. But the teams were even the remainder of the contest.
Keyontae Johnson contributed a game-high 19 points and six rebounds and Will Richardson had 17, including a pair of 3-pointers. Kansas-bound David McCormack sealed the interior with 15 points and 10 rebounds, sinking 7 of 13 shots.
OHA won it with 58 points in the paint, mostly in transition, but bucketed 33 of 63 shots (52.4%).
Garfield’s J’Raan Rooks, a USC recruit, had 15 points and 6 feet 6 junior Jamon Kemp added 11 points and seven rebounds.
“I’ve played against half these guys in AAU,” Rooks said. “We didn’t play a team like this all season. We didn’t play against the academy or prep schools who have the top players. It’s difference than playing in Seattle.”
The Warriors were putting on a clinic in the third period when they took a 43-22 lead with 4:17 left on Keyontae Johnson’s traditional three-point play. They would take a 19-point edge into the third at 50-31. Through three quarters, the Bulldogs were punished for their 21 turnovers that allowed 17 points for the Warriors.
“Nothing changed today; we played together and my role stayed the same,” Keyontae Johnson, a Florida signee, said. “We attacked the rim.”
OHA also manufactured 40 of their 50 from inside the paint.
Keyontae Johnson punctuated the 18-7 second-quarter run with a tomahawk dunk that wrecked the rim. Oak Hill led 37-15 and it could have been worse. Johnson tossed in 13 points, made five steals and pulled down four boards for a tidy stat line.
Akrum Ahemed and McCormack each scored seven points as the Warriors held an 18-2 edge on the fast break. Their aim was dead-on, nailing 17 of 29 shots for 58.6% and was OHA’s passing that accrued nine assists from five individuals.
Garfield was befuddled, dropping only 6 of 25 shots (24%) and turned the ball over 13 times. It was not a good showing for the Bulldogs, who usually are at the other end of the scoreline.
Oak Hill, well, was Oak Hill. Dependable and efficient. After giving off his boys a few weeks, the Warriors regrouped and amped up their training in preparation for GEICO. The second quarter was a microcosm of their season—when rested, the Warriors can beat anyone anywhere.
“We have better chemistry this year and our best players are the hardest workers; that’s really helped,” Smith acknowledged.
In the first quarter, OHA’s dominance was evident. They led 19-8 using superior athletes, crisp passing and a finely tuned transition game. Keyontae Johnson (six points), Keldon Johnson (four) and Akrum Ahmed (five) combined to score 15 of the 19.
Keldon Johnson rolled his ankle in the first and did not return. Keldon, a McDonald’s All-American, signed with Kentucky. His status for the semifinals is unknown but Smith said Johnson “will ice his ankle and see what it looks like Friday.”
In his absence, the 6 feet 3 senior Ahemed pumped in 12 points, making 5 of 7 shots from the field.
“Akrum played a lot in practice when Keldon [Johnson] played at the McDonald’s Game. I’m glad he had that experience and was ready to go,” Smith said.
Garfield, the Class 3A Washington state champions, fizzled from the field, going 3 of 13 (23.1%) and surrendering nine points off eight turnovers. Kemp scored five points to pace the Bulldogs.
“We played against some dudes unlike in Seattle,” Kemp added.