by Danny Hazan / @DeeHaze24
Lone Peak (UT) has grabbed the attention of national high school basketball followers this season and currently sits at No. 5 in the country, according to USA Today.
The Knights’ high-octane offense imposes a break-neck speed tempo and nearly seamless ball movement among all five players on the court and has been their recipe in beating the brakes off most their opponents so far—and the primary reason for that attention.
BYU commitments Nick Emery, Eric Mika and TJ Haws have been at the head of the attack all season long in which their only loss was to USA Today’s No. 1 squad Montverde Academy (FL), and the Knights found themselves on the ropes in the nightcap of the 3rd Annual Brandon Jennings Invitational presented by Under Armour Saturday at Brookfield Central in suburban Milwaukee against Wesleyan Christian (NC).
While the game’s first 5 buckets between both teams came from 3-point land, the Knights only converted 2 more the remainder of the game and found themselves trailing the Trojans for most of the game. But they proved they could win with defense by erasing a 7-point halftime deficit and coming out on top, 63-59.
“We really struggled in the first half on our defense,” said the senior Emery, who led the Knights with 20 points and was selected as the game’s most outstanding player. “They got wide open shots and they knocked them down. Then in the second half we really emphasized our defense, and that’s really what won us the game. We weren’t hitting our shots or anything like that, so our defense really got down and played.
“This is one of the biggest invitationals nationally, and it really means a lot for us to come out here and win that game. Wesleyan is a really good team and it means a lot, especially coming back from down. It’s huge for our team.”
Wesleyan Christian was led by 6-foot-5 junior Theo Pinson, who is ranked No. 7 in the class of 2014 by ESPN, and has scholarship offers from every big time program in the country. Pinson showed why he is so highly coveted by scoring 12 points in the first quarter. However, Lone Peak was able to limit him to 5 points the rest of the game, and only 2 in the second half.
Haws, also a junior, canned a pair of treys in the first quarter, but only scored 3 points during the second and third quarter. He turned it on in the fourth by scoring 8 points, but none were bigger than his two-handed tip dunk after an Emery steal and missed layup which gave Lone Peak a 60-57 lead with just under two minutes left in the game.
“We don’t want to press that panic button,” said Haws, who finished with 17 points. “When they get up, we had to stay calm and fight through the storm. That’s what we did and battled to the end.”
Following a pair of Trojans senior Blake Davis free throws that trimmed Lone Peak’s lead back to one, the Knights turned it over with 55 seconds left but Emery came up with another critical steal to maintain the lead as they sealed the deal from the free throw line.
Mika continued to make his case as one of the premier class of 2013 post players in the country while playing a major role in the victory by scoring 19 points and making his presence felt on the offensive and defensive glass. Knights coach Quincy Lewis said despite his unhappiness with plenty about the game, grinding out a win such as Saturday’s will be positive as Lone Peak attempts to win its third straight state title.
“You don’t want to play a game like that, but it was good for us,” Lewis said. “It was really good for us to have to kind of buckle down and get some stops, and win a game where we were very flat from an offensive standpoint. I wasn’t happy with our mental preparation but we figured out how to win.”
Lone Peak has traveled to Illinois, Florida, Wisconsin and will make its final stop in Massachusetts for Spalding’s Hoophall Classic against USA Top 25 honorable mention Archbishop Mitty (CA) on Jan. 21. After that, they will refocus on the local competition that Haws says they don’t take lightly even though no Utah team has challenged them quite like Wesleyan Christian did thus far.
“Every game is a challenge in Utah,” Haws said. “Going back and playing in Utah we definitely have a big target on our back. Basketball is so much different back there. Everyone wants their shot at us, and the game is a little bit slower. So we just have to try and keep our tempo of basketball.”
The Trojans got contributions Saturday from tough 6-6 senior wing Trey Chapman (14 points), 6-1 junior guard Jaquel Richmond (9 points) and 6-8 freshman Harry Giles (7 points). Like Haws, Pinson is also shifting his focus back to his team’s conference season and postseason.
“We’ve been in so many games and it’s hard to take a loss like this,” Pinson said. “I mean, personally I feel we were better than them. But we have to take it and learn from it, and now it’s getting into conference play. So we’ll stay focused and stay together, and try to dominate North Carolina.”
It’s not hard to believe why Wesleyan Christian is ranked as one of the best teams in North Carolina, as Pinson showed he could score in a variety of ways. He hit his first 3 3-point attempts, and also scored on athletic drives to the rim and on a mid-range jumper, all the while doing his best to prove he’s more than just an elite athlete.
“I have to thank Coach (Keith) Gatlin a whole lot,” Pinson said. “From the start when I first got there, he told me I had to work on my jump shot if I want to be an elite player. So we’ve been working on it since I’ve been there, and you can see it’s improving.”
Pinson is still undecided about his college destination, but one thing he could offer more insight into was the life of a player ranked nationally from the time he was 14. Giles will undoubtedly be tabbed by scouting services, rankings gurus and college coaches alike for the remainder of his high school career, and Pinson can relate.
Not only does Giles possess a 6-8 frame, he’s a fluid athlete, has some range on his shot and didn’t back down from guarding the rugged Mika down low. A couple years from now, his offer list will look a lot similar to Pinson’s.
“I tell him to keep playing and keep having fun,” Pinson said. “I think when I was younger I was worried about rankings too much. Now I just worry about getting better because I have the offers. You might as well just keep getting better so when you get to college you’ll be ready.”