by Franklyn Calle / @FrankieC7

For a while it seemed like Montverde Academy would be falling short from the coveted national title for a second consecutive year. After a devastating loss in the championship game to Findlay Prep last year, the Florida school found itself trailing by 16 in the third quarter of this year’s title game to New Jersey powerhouse St. Benedict’s Prep. But then out of nowhere Montverde’s offense woke up and the team went on to outscore the Grey Bees 32-16 to finish the game, pulling off the amazing comeback and escaping with a 67-65 victory… as well as the top ranking spot in the nation.

The momentum seemed to shift toward Montverde as the third quarter culminated with a 6-0 run by the Eagles–yet they trailed 41-49 heading to the fourth. Quick back-to-back baskets by St. Benedict’s–a three-pointer by sophomore sensation Isaiah Briscoe and a fadeaway jumper adjacent to the baseline by junior Jonathan Williams–extended the Grey Bees lead to 13 at 54-41 to start the final quarter of play. But then Montverde got real hot from the floor, especially from behind the perimeter, which sparked a 10-0 run in their favor. Florida-bound Kasey Hill hit a three-pointer, followed by another three-pointer from Miguel Cartagena, and then a third consecutive trey from junior stud D’Angelo Russell. A few moments later Russell would go one for two from the free throw line to pull his team within three, 54-51. Both teams would trade baskets for the next couple of minutes. With the score 60-57 in favor of St. Benedict’s, Montverde’s strategy shifted from hitting the long ball to attacking the rim. This aggressive style of play would help them stop the clock and head to the free throw line. After going two for two from the free throw line, Hill brought his team within one, 60-59.

Before going any further it should be noted that Ben Simmons, the highly-touted Australian sophomore that moved to the United States in January, made his debut on Thursday in the quarterfinals of the National High School Invitational. He played very well in his first game, scoring 16 points that included two posterizing dunks. And on Saturday afternoon he came through in clutch time with a put-back dunk that gave Montverde the lead at 61-60.

Syracuse-bound point guard Tyler Ennis found a way to get the rim, like he always does, and put up a runner that regained the lead for St. Benedict’s at 62-61 with 41.5 seconds to go. But on the other end of the floor Kentucky-bound center Dakari Johnson continued his dominant play which had been on display throughout the entire three-day tourney, as he muscled his way to the rim for a spin-back lay up, plus the “and-one” free throw, converting a three-point play that put Montverde ahead 64-62 with 24.1 seconds remaining.

Great players always find a way to play through nagging injuries and if anything became transparent during the NHSI it was that the Toronto-native Ennis is a great player. Despite dealing with a shoulder injury that was only made worse when he bumped into Simmons during a pick earlier in the game, the 6-2 Ennis was still able to hold it down for his squad. And with about ten seconds to go, he hit a huge three pointer from the corner that would put St. Benedict’s up by one, 65-64. Montverde quickly responded, inbounding the ball and racing up the court, where Hill drove into the lane before kicking it out to Jalyn Patterson in the corner right in front of Montverde’s bench for a buzzer-beating three-pointer that gave the Eagles the definitive 67-65 victory. Peterson’s shot was his first and only field goal in the game.

Montverde diverted what could have potentially been a heartbreaking loss for the second-consecutive year at the title game of the NHSI. Just last year, Montverde also made it to the championship game before falling short to Findlay Prep in an overtime affair that came down to the final possession. But, technically, Montverde did exactly what was done to them a year ago. Montverde led by as many as 18 points in last year’s championship game until Findlay Prep went on a run in the final minutes of the fourth quarter that sparked the comeback win. This time around, though, it was Montverde pulling off the unbelievable come-from-behind victory. Johnson, the future Wildcat, took home the MVP honors after finishing with 18 points and eight rebounds (after dropping 16 points and 11 rebounds in the semis, and 17 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks in the quarterfinals). Hill, the future Gator, added 19 points, six rebounds and five assists, while Russell chipped in 10 points. For St. Benedict’s, who had to defeat the reigning NHSI champ Findlay Prep (who also had a 54-game winning streak going and an undefeated season record on the line) to get to the finals, Pitt-bound forward led the team with 19 points and 11 rebounds, while Ennis contributed 15 points, six rebounds and five assists.

(Photo Credit: Randy Rage)