by Christopher Lawlor
FORT MYERS, Fla. — Nate Bittle of Prolific Prep (Napa, Calif.) has put up more dynamic numbers in high illustrious high school career but Wednesday night’s stat line of eight points, 11 rebounds and four blocked shots do not begin to paint the picture for the 6-foot-11 beanpole from rural southern Oregon.
Bittle, a McDonald’s All American, was every bit the hero on the defensive end but needed help from his Eastern European teammate Stefan Todorovic. Bittle earned player of the game honors but Todorovic tossed in a team-high 12 points and Prolific managed to held off a late-charging La Lumiere School (La Porte, Ind.), 45-43, in a GEICO High School Nationals play-in game at Suncoast Credit Union Arena.
The Crew built a seemingly comfortable 12-point lead late in the fourth quarter and managed only one point, a free throw by Todorovic with 5.7 seconds remaining and the Crew clinging to a precarious 44-43 lead.
Todorovic, one of the nation’s sweetest shooters and Serbian import, sank from the front end of the one-and-one but missed the second. La Lumiere’s sophomore guard Jeremy Fears, Jr. grabbed the rebound and it pushed up court before launching an off-balance 12-foot jumper that clanged off the rim as time expired.
The 10th-seeded Lakers concluded their truncated season at 6-9.
For Prolific it was quite a debut at the GEICO Nationals. A year ago, the Northern California school was invited to the GEICO Nationals only to see the tournament postponed and eventually cancelled.
Both teams struggled from the field as defense eventually won out. The Lakers were a chilly 14 of 44 (31.8 percent) and only 2 of 11 from three-point land. Prolific led 38-30 in rebounding, recorded 11 blocks, and outscored the Indianans, 28-24, in the paint.
It was the first meeting between the two national powerhouse programs. La Lumiere entered the game at 1-8 against teams in the GEICO Nationals.
After a two-year absence—last year’s event slated for Roebuck, South Carolina was cancelled for pandemic concerns—it was opening game of the new look tournament with 10 teams, including two play-in games.
Prolific grabbed its largest lead just over two minutes into the fourth quarter at 44-32 when junior guard Kamari Lands knifed between two defenders to score and a 36-29 advantage. Coincidentally, Lands transferred to Prolific from La Lumiere prior to the school year.
The Lakers would not fold but the Crew did heavy lifting to build the cushion. Forward Adem Bona, a junior from Lagos, Nigeria, slammed home two points off a screen roll, extending the Crew’s lead to 38-29 with five minutes left.
The first half was played at a more deliberate pace, favoring the Lakers. The opening minutes of the third quarter saw the Crew take their first lead when Todorovic completed a rare four-point play at 6:29. The Serbian nailed his second 3-pointer from the left wing and made the ensuing free throw for a temporary 24-22 edge. On the next possession junior forward Kebba Njie sank a short turnaround jumper to draw even at 24-all.
After that it was Prolific that used an 8-4 spurt for a 32-28 lead through three quarters. Todorovic paced the Crew with 11 points but the Lakers turned the ball over seven times in the period and made only 3 of 12 shots and misfired on all four shot from beyond the arc.
Prolific regained its footing in the second but still trailed by eight points (15-7). Finally, Bittle picked up the pace and the defense tightened up. The Crew reduced the deficit to two points (20-18) at the break, closing with a 13-7 tear. The shooting improved at 6 of 11 and there six blocks while the rebounding totals were even at 12.
Iwuchukwu and Okpara scored six points apiece and Starling had five for La Lumiere, which dominated the interior scoring with 14 points.
Todorovic, a 6-6 junior sharpshooter from Belgrade, Serbia, popped in seven points, sinking 3 of 4 shots. Bittle, one of the nation’s top recruits and a coveted Oregon signee, added four points, six rebounds and two blocks. Bittle continued to show his versatility in transition, shooting from the perimeter and playing above the rim.
La Lumiere carried an 11-5 lead into the second. A majority of the points were tallied in the opening five minutes. Prolific committed five turnovers, showing the opening quarter jitters but its NBA-sized frontline protected the rim with four blocked shots. J.J. Starling (five points) and Iwuchukwu (four) teamed for nine points.
The Lakers were not daunted by the magnitude of the event. When the event was last played in 2019 in New York City, the Lakers fell in the championship game to IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.), but jumped to a quick 11-3 lead by the midway point of the first stanza. La Lumiere’s Starling scored the game’s first five points before Todorovic canned a long 3-pointer from the right wing.
The Lakers’ start was fueled by 4 of 6 shooting, while the Californians were frigid at 1 of 8.