60 Teams. 3 Locations. 1 Champ. After a long road chock-full of talented squads, the quest to bring the iS8/Nike Spring High School Classic title back to New York was finally over Sunday afternoon.
The NY Panthers (Seniors) stole the chip from the offensively tough New Jersey Playaz Club Sophomores, 76-65, in a metropolitan battle of youth versus experience.
"I thought that they really came ready to play today," said NY Panthers head coach Gary Charles. "We started off a little slow, but once we got our wind together, they really buckled down and played 'D.' I thought that was the difference in the game."
Panthers' Lance Stephenson surged to drop 21 points in the second-half, en route to a 25-point performance. The still uncommitted senior guard also saw some quality contributions from his fellow veterans. And, it was the excited energy level brought on by these Panthers that sparked Stephenson's second-half run.
"I just wanted to win, so I did whatever I do to win," said Stephenson of his second-half surge. "I'm happy we won and we played hard, that's what we want."
The contest started off sluggish, as the only sound that could be heard in the gym was the subtle squeaking of some sneakers. Early on, the Playaz Club Sophs jumped to an 11-3 lead by exploiting the Panthers' weak side. That advantage was chipped down a little bit, by the close of the first quarter, to only a 13-8 advantage for the New Jersey team.
Playaz Club's Myles Davis (23 points) continued to shake off the competition and up the offensive grinding, early in the second half, creating offense on two consecutive possessions. The NY Panthers got stuck in a little rut, as if they were watching to see how the Playaz Club will execute before making something happen on their own.
"That's the best 16 and under team in the country for a reason and so I have a tremendous respect for what [the Playaz Club program has] done over the years," said Coach Charles. "I was really, really worried about this particular game because I knew they played really well together."
Late in the second phase, things started to heat up. With a Panthers 11-0 run, sparked by a three-pointer by Arizona-bound Kevin Parrom (14 points) and capped with a fade-away jay by Stephenson, the game now had new leaders, 21-19. However, Playaz Club's Myles Mack (15 points) took it straight to the rim on a fast-break and tied the game at 21. But, the Panthers outscored the Jersey team down the stretch and held onto a thin lead of 30-24 at the break.
"I think we played hard defense," said Lance Stephenson. "We could have played a little better, they made a lot of big shots, but I'm just happy we won and we got the chip, we got the trophy."
In the opening moments of the third quarter, Davis kissed a three off the glass and made the score 32-27. But, the Panthers went to work again, extending its offensive wave, as the New York squad outscored Playaz 10-5 by the 4:05 mark. As the battle progressed, Playaz Club found itself unable to utilize the Panthers weak side to find a rhythm because the team strengthened its defensive form.
Having limited strategy to score, the Playaz Club found itself dug in a deeper deficit of as much as 13 points, 48-35, at the 1:53 mark of the third quarter. Both squads showed high aggression and physicality in the final minutes of the period. With 1:15 remaining, Playaz Club Sophs' Mack and Vaughn Gray (eight points) knocked down a trey a piece to bring the Panthers' advantage down to nine, 50-41. Mack nailed a jumper to further narrow the lead to a seven-point deficit, 50-43.
Panthers' Hofstra-bound Chaz Williams (eight points) knocked down a three-pointer at the onset of the last and final quarter, as Davis answered with a trey of his own for Playaz Club maintaining the trail of seven, 53-46. Just when the game seemed to be going in the direction of a shootout, with no stops in sight, the Panthers regained focus on the defensive end.
The veteran squad surged on a 13-3 spurt, topped by a pair of Stephenson free throws, bringing the score to 66-49. Playaz Club went on its own mini-run, as the team outscored the Panthers in the following minutes. But, even with the late effort by Mack and freshman point guard Kyle Anderson (five points), the team, which trailed by as much as 15 points in the fourth quarter, was pretty much cooked.
Despite not pulling out the 'W,' Playaz Club Sophomores gave iS8 a little sample of what to expect in the upcoming years. Led by the shooting touches of Davis and Mack, the New Jersey team proved to be a force to be reckoned with.
"This is a great, great team and I'm not looking forward to seeing them in the next couple of years, at all," said Coach Charles of the difficulty Playaz Sophs will pose in the future.
On the winning side of the coin, the NY Panthers Senior squad, in their last Spring/Summer playing AAU, was able to bring the iS8/Nike chip back home.
"It was fun, I ain't played with them in a long time, but I'm happy to win with them and just go have fun," said Stephenson of playing with the NY Panthers. "I'm going to miss [playing AAU] a lot, but I'm going off to college and trying to find a good team to play with and win just like I'm doing now."
Game MVP: Lance Stephenson
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