New Heights (Seniors/A), who lost in the final four of the iS8/Nike three years in a row, was determined to get over the semifinal hump this season at the iS8/Nike Fall Tip-Off Classic.
The only thing standing in the way, this time, was New Jersey squad St. Benedict's. New Heights was back to its first class competitive form, as it edged St. Benedict's 84-80 on Saturday at the Queens, NY main site.
"I think today it kind of all came together for us, especially in the first half," said New Heights head coach Kimani Young. "I thought we played well defensively, we were sharing the ball, [Jayvaughn Pinkston] and Devon [Collier] came to play. But, I knew they [St. Benedict's] were going to make a run, they're one of the top teams in the country, they're not going to lay down. So, we knew it would be a war, but I just think we did enough down the stretch to win."
St. Benedict's jumped to a 6-0 advantage in the opening minutes of the first quarter. Pinkston (28 points) led the charge in tying the game and taking the lead from the New Jersey squad- the first of three lead changes in favor of the NY team.
New Heights hit St. Benedict's with the same game cocktail used by Team Phili in pool play against the NJ squad- two parts pressure and two parts continually attacking the glass. The usage of the New Heights' pressure early, revealed St. Benedict's weakness of being frustrated by an intense press resulting in turning the ball over. Meanwhile, the NY squad's constant drive to the inside got St. Benedict's big man Gil Biruta in foul trouble.
Biruta, who usually plays offense like a smaller swingman, attempted to pick up smaller contenders penetrating to the basket but was loose with his hands. He had already picked up two fouls by the 3:03 mark of the first.
New Heights extended its first phase lead to as much as five before Aaron Brown (25 points) went on his own run to regain the lead 14-13 with 1:50 remaining in the period. Though St. Benedict's saw a lead of as much as six points, 19-13, after a three-pointer by Brown assisted by Myck Kabongo (25 points), the advantage was chopped down to two by the close of the quarter, 19-17.
St. Benedict's began to unravel in the second phase as New Heights' Devon Collier (25 points) got into rhythm, tying the game in the quarter's opening seconds. Though without the help of teammate Ashton Pankey, who was sidelined in the first quarter with a split lip, Collier's performance under the rim was near flawless. He was there to clean up teammates' shots with put-backs and take defenders down the baseline to the rack throughout the contest.
"This is big, this is big for him," said Young of Collier's standout performance. " Him and [Jayvaughn], they carry us. What happened in the past, one would have a good game the other would be sub-par. So, I told them we need both of you guys to play well together and I think that would help us with the game."
St. Benedict's regained the lead after Blaise Mbargorba hit one-of-two from the line. Collier on another put-back answered with 6:55 on the clock, taking back the lead 21-20. While St. Benedict's turned the ball over and lacked a strong presence under the rack with a foul-troubled Biruta, New Heights went on a 13-0 run. The NY squad held a 34-20 lead with about five minutes left before the half.
The ransacking continued as the squad extended its lead to as much as 18 points, 40-22. The first half closed with a New Heights 16-point advantage, 47-31.
Although Pinkston gave New Heights an 18-point lead again in the third quarter, St. Benedict's refused to be put out of commission this early in the game.
Led by Kabongo's persistence to the rack and Brown's bombs from the perimeter, St. Benedict's cut the deficit down to as little as six points, 57-51, with 2:03 remaining in the tertiary period. Pinkston and Collier dug St. Benedict's a little deeper, as the score was 63-51 at the end of the quarter.
In the fourth phase, St. Benedict's stepped up its offense and defensive friskiness, despite the fouling out of Biruta with 3:33 on the clock. The NJ squad went on a small run with the help of J.P. Kambola (17 points) and Xavier Munford (11 points).
St. Benedict's brought the game within six twice in a three-minute stretch. The NJ team tried to use the same strategy New Heights enforced to lock-down their offense- pressing and trapping. Every time St. Benedict's got close, Collier was there to increase the margin to a three-possession game as the contest ticked down into its final minutes.
With about 2:38 on the clock New Heights' Corey Edwards, who was instrumental at keeping the perimeter guarded, fouled out and sent Kabongo to the line for two. With 2:20 on the clock, Kabongo was fouled again and, ultimately, chopped a nine-point deficit down to five, 76-71- St. Benedict's closest margin of the game.
New Heights held a lead of five points, 78-73, with about 1:35 remaining in regulation, but Munford hit a clutch three-pointer 30 seconds later to bring the game within three-points. Following a timeout, Kabongo knotted the game at 78 with 50 seconds left in the contest.
New Heights fast-broke to the other end of the hardwood where Brandon Frazier (seven points) scored on a tip-in. Collier scored after an empty possession by St. Benedict's and gave the NY squad a four-point lead, 82-78, with 19 seconds on the game clock.
Brown nailed one at the cylinder, but the team had to foul Frazier with eight seconds to stop the clock and make New Heights earn them at the line. Frazier hit two-of-two from the charity stripe to ice the game for New Heights, 84-80.
New Heights (Seniors) will play the NY Panthers next in the iS8/Nike Fall Tip-Off Classic Championship.
"Great team, guard play, great guards," said Young of the Panthers. "We just got to . . . try to take advantage of the inside, keep guys in front of us and see what happens."
This best-of-New York duel will take place on Sunday at 11:00 a.m. at the Queens, NY main site.
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