By Christopher Lawlor
NEW YORK – There are rare moments when you can appreciate the greatness of a special player. Vernon Carey Jr. qualifies as such player.
Carey can do-it-all, really. Standing 6 feet 10, he’s agile on his feet, pirouetting through the lane, spinning to the glass for another fantastic finish at the rim. The next moment he’s unchained terror, eyeing the cylinder and looking to do his imitation of DaMarcus Cousins or Darryl Dawkins. Yet his game is more and then some in difference to the legendary Chocolate Thunder.
In the biggest game of the season, Carey scored 29 points on Friday, including five scintillating slam dunks that shook the building’s foundation to core. This is the future of basketball coming straight at you at warp speed or floating into the picture with the finesse of a knuckleball.
“Today I was focusing on the paint,” Carey said. “As a team were focused on playing better defense than the first time we played them at the Hoophall [Classic].”
Third-seeded University School (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) looked every bit one of the nation’s best boys’ teams and they dismantled a perennial powerhouse Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.), 80-65, in the GEICO High School Nationals semifinals at Christ the King High School’s Father John Savage Memorial Gymnasium.
It wasn’t the first meeting this season between the powerhouse programs. Oak Hill posted an 82-69 pasting of the Sharks on Jan. 15 at the Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass. This time University returned the favor on a grander stage.
“We wanted revenge today after losing to them,” said senior Trey Doomes, who scored 17 points.
That means University punched its ticket to the national championship game on Saturday and squares off with No. 1 Montverde (Fla.) Academy or No. 4 Findlay Prep (Henderson, Nev.) at 12 p.m. on ESPN.
“We’re the first traditional high school boys’ team to reach the championship of this event so that’s an accomplishment,” University coach Adrian Sosa said. “Since we last played Oak Hill we paid more attention to detail and now we’re playing at different level.”
The Warriors played shorthanded when Keldon Johnson, a 6 feet 7, McDonald’s All-American did not play in the first half due to injury. The Kentucky-bound forward suffered an ankle ailment in the first round win over Garfield (Seattle) on Thursday. He entered the tournament as the team’s top scorer at 20 points per game and his go-to presence was sorely missed.
He played six minutes in the third, scoring four points but the Sharks continued to hold a 53-44 lead. Carey had 21 points through three.
Carey and the Sharks were cruising to the final and when he stole an errant pass and finished with an emphatic flush, the Warriors were down 13 points at 45-32 with 4:10 in the third.
“Before the game Keldon couldn’t even walk backwards; in the second half he really wanted to go. Keldon is out leader and inspirational guy,” Oak Hill coach Steve Smith said. “Today we were out of it. We did not play well and cannot make any excuses. We had a breakdown on defense and they had too many second chance points. They outplayed us.”
The Sharks (36-1) tallied 13 second-chance points and shot 55.8% (29 of 52 from the floor), with several of the points coming off high percentage opportunities.
Sophomore Scottie Barnes played like a blue-chip recruit from the Class of 2020, scoring 22 points, throwing down two dunks and snaring six rebounds.
In one sequence of the fourth quarter, the Warriors had a chance to slice the lead to six points or two possessions. Richardson’s long three from the right wing caromed hard off the iron and back at the other end Drue Drinnon canned a short jumped to bump the lead back to 11 at 62-51.
It typified the afternoon for Oak Hill (44-2), which lost for the first time in seven games. The Warriors were just 4 of 17 from three-point territory but committed an uncharacteristic 16 turnover and were outscored 22-12 on the fast break.
Will Richardson led the Warriors with 23 points and six assists, David McCormack finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds and Keyontae Johnson hit for 13 points in his final scholastic game before going to Florida.
Thanks to a spiffy 21-14 second-quarter spree, the Sharks enjoyed a 36-28 lead at halftime. The score was tied twice at 10 and 12 in the first and the lead changed hands five times, the final one was early in the second for the Floridians. The Warriors had no answer for Carey’s 14 points and five rebounds. Barnes added 10.
In Keldon Johnson’s absence, Kansas-bound McCormack was clutch with 10 points and eight boards and Keyontae Johnson scored seven but Oak Hill only went 10 of 24 from the field for 41.7% allowed 11 points off nine turnovers in the first half.
It was Oak Hill’s largest halftime deficit of the season and eventually their second loss in 46 games.
University’s defense picked up the pace in the second and helped fuel a 26-20 lead. Carey scored five points in the 11-6 spree, including a traditional three-point play and dunk off a slick no-look pass threaded by Barnes.
OHA came out shooting and quickly jumped to a 7-3 lead. University rallied for an 8-7 edge before Carey’s two-handed, power stuff at 2:25. Xavien Flowers gave the Sharks a 15-14 lead through one quarter. All eyes were on Carey who had six points and hauled down four boards in the opening period. Richardson scored six for the Warriors, who shot 6 of 11 (54.5%) from the field.
University mixed up its defense, throwing 3-2 and matchup zones that gave the Warriors fits.
“We’re known as a football state but we play some very good basketball in Florida,” Sosa said.
Oak Hill concluded a sensational season. Playing in New York, marks the 12th state they will have visited this season and that includes a grueling schedule and 36-game winning skein to open the campaign. Oak Hill won three in-season tournaments: Chick-fil-A Classic National Division (S.C.) prior to Christmas and followed that up with the Les Schwab Invitational (OR) and the Bass Pro Tournament of Champions (Missouri) crown over the Martin Luther King Weekend.
“I’m blessed to coach great players and this year’s team was pretty special,” Smith acknowledged.