by Aggrey Sam

As you continue to digest yesterday’s meal and consider how much you appreciate your gifts, here’s something else to be thankful for during the holiday season–a final report from the City of Palms, featuring semifinal and championship-game action. Happy holidays!

Semi: Mater Dei vs. Wheeler

I sat next to the stat guys for Mater Dei (yes, they bring their own stat guys–two of them–who print out their own stats at both halftime and after the game for the coaching staff; they also have about six coaches, three student managers, 20+ players, including what seems like the entire JV team, and at least 50 fans who made the cross-country trip) the previous night and warned them that despite Ari Stewart’s strong effort against Lincoln, the key to the game would be controlling Wheeler’s Richard Howell. I look pretty smart early, as the burly big fella is wreaking havoc down low and pushing the ball in transition.

– The Wear twins are excellent fundamentally, have great footwork, ballhandling ability for their size and range, but being that they’re not incredibly quick or athletic, I’d like to see them play with their backs to the basket and rebound more. Early on, they (especially David) are both tateshowing more aggressiveness than I’ve seen from them in the past.

– Wheeler’s Tahj Tate is showing a lot more savvy and skill tonight. That’s not a knock on him; he did a great job of slashing and finishing at the rim against Lincoln, but here he’s showing a more varied skillset, including nice footwork and a potent mid-range J. At 6-3, with good bounce, solid D and a high IQ, I could see him being a hot commodity if he remains uncommitted through the season. Sleeper!

– I think Mater Dei would rather play a team like Wheeler, with athletes and size, than Roman Catholic, who made them chase little guards all over the place and pressured the ball at every moment. Not that Wheeler can’t do that, but it’s a better matchup. Mater Dei has consistently been in control, but not by an overwhelming margin. 37-30 at the half.

– Mater Dei’s Tyler Lamb is more athletic than I thought. Not in a traditional, 40-inch vertical way, but moreso in how he maneuvers in the air to finish. He’s also a good passer, but the final pieces to the puzzle are improving his ballhandling and strength.

– Wheeler freshman Charles Mitchell doesn’t get a lot of burn behind Stewart and Howell, but at 6-7 and 230 pounds, he has the look of a kid to watch for the future. I also like how he’s physical, runs court well and makes the most of his time by grabbing some boards.

– Mater Dei has their own freshman off the bench who gets some tick. Eli Stalzer is his name, and he’s a confident, 6-1 guard with a decent frame and isn’t shy about putting that thing up. Nice-looking stroke.

– When evaluating Phil Taylor’s skillset, it’s easy to nitpick and find weaknesses or things he can improve on, but the reality is, the kid is a gamer. The junior from Wheeler isn’t the biggest kid out there at 5-9 and he’s a little trigger-happy to be a point, but he gets to the rack and often finishes and hits big shots.

– In somewhat of the same vein is Mater Dei’s Gary Franklin. He’s bigger than Taylor at 6-3, but he’s also more of a shoot-first point guard with a nice J. The early USC commit does look like a future Pac-10 player. He just makes plays, as his big trey from deep was pretty much the nail in the coffin for Wheeler.

– Mater Dei wins, 81-72. Lamb led them with 18 and 13 boards, while David Wear chipped in with 17 and nine and Franklin, Andy Brown and Travis Wear added 15, 12 and 11, respectively. For Wheeler, Tate led the way with 22 and six, while Taylor put up 19, five dimes and four steals and Howell finished with 16 and 10.

Semi: St. Pat’s vs. Winter Park

Despite being able to play in this game, St. Pat’s senior guard Dexter Strickland, another UNCdexter signee, doesn’t start in this one. While I’m pretty hot and cold on Dexter, as good as St. Pat’s looked without him against Word of God, I’m convinced they’ll be a lot better with him available.

– Although they won’t be matched up against each other, this game features two of the nation’s very best sophomores in Winter Park’s Austin Rivers and Mike Gilchrist of St. Pat’s. It was rumored before the game that Austin’s father (some guy named Glenn who coaches a team in Boston) would be at the game, but I doubted. Sure enough, however, there’s Doc, along with his very pretty daughter, a sophomore on Florida’s women’s volleyball team.

– Rivers isn’t going off immediately, but Winter Park is battling. He might be forcing a little. Gilchrist, on the other hand, is making things happen early, including some nice moves down low and a two-hand bang. Also, Dexter checks in early. St. Pat’s up, 14-11, after one. Refs are calling things very tight.

– Rivers is starting to pick his spots better and find his teammates. It’s great that such a tremendous young scorer can make adjustments like that. St. Pat’s is constantly rotating defenders on him, too.

– St. Pat’s holds the ball at the end of the half and the fans boo, but if they knew Kevin Boyle, they’d understand that he isn’t changing his ways for anybody (if he could care less about what the Hurleys, basketball royalty in Jersey, think about him, why would he care about about some random fans in Florida?) and if anything, he might give them more to antagonize them. St. Pat’s holds a 30-19 lead at the break.

– Gilchrist picks up his fourth foul midway through the third, but the other St. Pat’s sophomore I like, 6-2 guard Derrick Gordon, has been quietly solid, despite having his minutes usurped by the veteran Strickland. This kid knows how to play.

– Adam Jones, previously neutralized by Gilchrist and 6-6 senior Paris Bennett, begins to step up in the second half. The 6-7 junior’s quickness, tenacity and effort are big for Winter Park, and it’s a big loss when he fouls out.

– Speaking of Bennett, the George Mason recruit redeemed himself from a listless performance in the Word of God game by getting big rebounds, finishing down low, making mid-range jumpers and hitting clutch free throws. He should be solid in the CAA.

– St. Pat’s uses a lot of clock toward the end and Winter Park isn’t good enough to execute without fouling, so they lose. The final is 59-54, but it was a lot more comfortable of a win for St. Pat’s than the score indicates. Rivers is held to 18, while Bennett’s 18 is high for the Celtics (ironic, huh?) in the win.

Chip: Mater Dei vs. St. Pat’s

This is fitting, as arguably the two best teams in the nation (since Duncanville was exposed in this tourney) are playing for the chip. Good players, good coaching, good matchups.

– Gilchrist starts out scoring the first four points of the game, including a big bang over the top. FranklinI love this kid’s approach.

– Two treys for Gary Franklin early. He’s a gamer.

– Dexter has come to play. A pretty baseline drive early is a good sign, as he’s been at his best (when I’ve seen him) when he’s assertive early on in the game.

– Franklin hits another trey just before the first-quarter buzzer. That’s 11 for him and a 15-14 Mater Dei advantage.

– While his wing skills could still use more polish, Gilchrist already handles the ball like a guard in space. He gets low, and his moves are quick and compact.

– Mater Dei has more size than St. Pat’s (and virtually every other high school team), but they’re bombing away from deep, while St. Pat’s is forcing the ball inside. The styles are working. Interesting.

– Since 3-pointers are worth more than twos, Mater Dei is up, 29-22, at the half. Honestly, it’s been pretty even and that’s been the only real difference.

– Franklin has really come to play. In addition to his launching from behind the arc, he’s also finishing some tough drives and knocking down pull-up jumpers. I can already see him playing late at night on FSN.

– Dexter is playing like a senior. He’s going right into the thick of things on his drives and finishing over-through the trees or getting fouled. He also catches a big oop on a pass from Bennett, who’s not too shabby himself. Very solid, controlled aggression.

– In the end, Franklin, Mater Dei’s size and just an overall lack mistakes are too much for St. Pat’s, who used to focring teams into multiple miscues. Mater Dei wins the chip, 52-45. Franklin drops 25 and Dexter and Paris put up 19 and 16, respectively, in a losing effort. After some of thrills seen here, some thought the chip was a letdown, but I love this type of solid, well-executed ball. One thing though: I guarantee head coach Kevin Boyle and the rest of St. Pat’s wish they could have had junior stud guard Kyrie Iriving eligible for this one.

Notes

– In the third-place game (Wheeler vs. Winter Park), Austin Rivers went crazy and dropped 46 (including eight treys; how come no team doubled him or at least went into a box-and-one or something?) in a 91-87 win. Funny that the only game he lost was with his pop watching. Staywall home, Doc! Seriously, it’s amazing that a team local experts called a borderline top-10 in the state upset three nationally-ranked squads. Props to not only Rivers, but also his teammates for raising their level of play on a big stage.

John Wall beat Wally Judge in the finals of a dunk contest, something we could see again on a much bigger stage in maybe three or four years, depending more on Wally than John. John-Michael Hodge of hometown Fort Myers High School won the three-point shootout on Saturday.

– I also saw two “Sunshine Series” games (Florida teams playing each other in one-game affairs)–Monteverde (actually a top national team) vs. Zion Lutheran (shout out to my man hensonJohnny Flemming. their head coach) and Sickles (featuring UNC recruit John Henson) vs. Bishop Verot, the host school. Monteverde’s James Bell, a 6-5 junior and early Villanova commit, is official. He has a college-ready body, is excellent in transition, jumps out of the gym, slashes hard and has great range (four treys), all of which he used to get his game-high 34 points. Monterverde had some other intriguing prospects, most impressive of which was athletic 6-7 junior Justin Jackson (16 points), who has a great motor. On the Zion Lutheran side, Renaldo Dixon, a 6-9 senior, displayed solid footwork and moves in the post, good rebounding ability and touch out to 15 feet, but was the victim of not getting enough touches in the second half and finished with 18 points in a 72-53 loss. The Sickles-Verot game wasn’t much of a contest, but I stuck around (it was after the chip) to watch Henson play, as did Roy Wiilliams, who also watched his three of his other recruits, the Wear twins and Strickland, in earlier action. The Texas transplant toyed with the comp en route to a 22-point, 14-board, 10-block game, but I was more impressed by how he used his body to block shots despite his lack of strength, his fluidity in handling the rock and how he wasn’t averse to taking contact. His teammate, junior Jordan Davis, a stocky, 5-10, 200-pound point guard who’s highly thought of in Florida, didn’t do a lot of scoring (he didn’t have to), but impressed me with his court vision and passing ability.

– I was worn out by then (and had a 6:50 a.m. flight), so I didn’t stick around to catch what should have been a good matchup between in-state foes American Heritage (their star, Florida signee Kenny Boynton, had a chance to break the CoP all-time scoring record) and Jacksonville’s Olympia in the consolation bracket finale, the last game of the event.

– The official all-tourney team was Westchester’s Jordin Mayes, Roman Catholic’s Maalik Wayns, Duncanville’s Roger Franklin, Word of God’s Wall, Wheeler’s Tate and Howell, Mater Dei’s Franklin and Lamb, St. Pat’s Gilchrist, Lincoln’s Lance Stephenson and American Heritage’s Boynton, while the MVP was Winter Park’s Rivers, of course.