By Aggrey Sam
With apologies to Paul Robeson High School of Human Services’ thrilling buzzer-beating win over Math, Civics and Sciences Charter School in the first round of the Philadelphia Public League playoffs, the best high school game I saw Thursday was USA Today’s No. 1 team, St. Patrick’s of New Jersey vs. the No. 6-ranked team in the nation, Huntington High School of West Virginia. St. Patrick’s, who I saw play twice in the Primetime Shootout, features Villanova-bound point guard Corey Fisher and Memphis-bound swingman Jeff Robinson, while Huntington is led by power forward Patrick Patterson, the nation’s top uncommitted senior and future USC Trojan O.J. Mayo. Mayo can drop buckets on anyone he faces and might be the most talented guard in the country, but Fisher is also a big-game player who doesn’t force the issue and makes his teammates better. Although I hadn’t seen Huntington play yet, I was pretty confident that based on their discipline, team D and floor leadership of Fisher, St. Pat’s would win with ease—unless Mayo put on Derrick Rose vs. Oak Hill-type performance.
Fisher opened the game’s scoring with an and-one in transition, which was immediately countered by Mayo with a sharp left-to-right crossover for his own lauyp. The Bronx-bred Fisher’s NYC playground savvy, coupled with the crazy athletic Robinson showing off his perimeter touch and the Celtics’ smothering D looked to be too much for the West Virginia natives to handle in the first quarter. Mayo, with highly-touted soph Dexter Strickland checking him, made some shots, but looked to be forcing things and couldn’t get his usually-lethal outside J to drop. Robinson and supersub Quintrell Thomas, a 6-8 junior, pounded the offensive boards for St. Pat’s and helping to neutralize Huntington’s Patterson on the inside. St. Pat’s looked somewhat unstoppable at this point and even with Huntington sixth man Chris Early (a 6-6 swingman committed to Oklahoma) burying a trey to stop the bleeding, St. Pat’s held a 21-7 lead at the end of one.
The second quarter started like the first, with Mayo hitting a corner trey, followed by Fisher getting a steal and going coast-to-coast for another and-one layup. All of a sudden, Mayo started getting hot, Patterson finally got some touches on the interior and Huntington cut the double-figure deficit to 9. The Jersey squad, however, keeps striking back, with a Robinson three-pointer and a graceful Strickland transition dunk over Huntington’s Bruce Senior highlighting their own run. Speaking of Strickland, while he faced a daunting task in defending Mayo, he showed tremendous basketball IQ and effort for a young player. Thomas, an inside warrior, displayed similar traits, as he was all over the boards and did all the dirty work. Fisher picked up his third foul with about two minutes left in the half, but stayed in the game and continued to attack the basket and score. With the second quarter winding down, Huntington made another run, with Mayo hitting a trey from way out, Early making a steal and finishing in transition and another Mayo 3 right before the halftime buzzer to make it a 36-33 St. Pat’s advantage at the break. Mayo had 16, Fisher had 13 and Robinson had 12 at intermission.
The two stars continued their pattern of trading punches to begin quarters, as Mayo tied the game with a 3 to start the second half, countered by a Fisher trey. Patterson started to make more of an impact on the game, demonstrated by a nice pass out of a double team to Senior for a layup, then a putback of an Early miss later on. Robinson actually showed signs of possessing an in-between game, as the Celtics’ southpaw puts the ball on the floor and hits a nice lefty floater. At this point, it pretty much became the Mayo/Fisher show. Mayo made a tough baseline floater, Fisher comes back with a teardrop (’07 Mark Jackson) after a pretty spin move around Mayo. O.J. cuts backdoor off an inbounds play, then banks in a fadeaway. Fisher counters with a pull-up J from 15 feet. Fisher uses a fake to free himself, then steps back to smoothly hit a trey. O.J. beats a double team with a hesitation move, then knocks down a contested deep deuce. With the floor cleared out, Fisher goes right at Mayo, gets separation with a left-to-right crossover, draws the contact and hits a hanging and-one off the glass. Mayo pulls up on a three-on-one break and steps back to hit a 3, stops to tie his shoe, then commits a foul to stop play and double-knot his sneaker. High school basketball at its best. St. Pat’s held a 57-53 lead after three quarters of play.
Mayo opened the fourth with a tough drive, then found Early with a lovely one-handed bounce pass for a bang in transition to tie the game. Off a scramble, Fisher uses his court vision to dime it to Thomas for a wide-open dunk and on the next possession, feeds Strickland for a layup. After a Patterson putback, a wild sequence ensues—Thomas makes a save to prevent a backcourt violation, then Early punches Fisher’s layup—Mayo gets a finger roll on the break and the game is tied again. Then, Huntington senior guard Jamaal Williams gets a steal off an inbounds pass and cruises in for a layup to give Huntington its first lead with about four minutes left in regulation. The frenetic back-and-forth play continues, with some controversial calls going the Celtics’ way in between, until Fisher knocks down a trey from the top of the key and Strickland makes a hard cut to get a layup off a nice dime from Thomas to put St. Pat’s up five with about two minutes to go. Out of a timeout, the Celtics went to a 2-3 zone for the first time and Mayo misses badly a 3. After another crazy possession, punctuated by a great defensive recovery and blocked shot by Patterson, St. Pat’s stayed aggressive instead of milking the clock and after failing to score, Mayo hits a floater to bring Huntington squad within three. With under a minute on the clock, St. Pat’s holds the ball and eventually gets it to Thomas down low, but Patterson makes another outstanding block to give Huntington the ball back. The ball goes to Mayo, of course, and he banks in a trey from the top of the key to tie the game with about 30 seconds to play. Neither team can score again in regulation and the game goes to OT with both squads knotted at 70.
In overtime, Fisher starts the scoring with a tough layup on the break, followed by a deep Mayo trey ball to put Huntington up one. Fisher then penetrates, draws the D and finds Robinson for a power dunk to get the lead back for St. Pat’s. With the athletic Robinson now guarding Mayo, he uses a screen to hit an ever deeper trey to give Huntington a two-point advantage. Fisher comes right back with a pull-up J in the lane to tie the game at 76. With about a minute left, Huntington elects to hold the ball, but Mayo passes it to teammate Michael Taylor, who turns it over. Fisher ends up with the rock, pushes it and finds Robinson for a layup on the break to gain a two-point lead. With St. Pat’s not yet in the bonus, Mayo is fouled and hits a tough shot—but it happens after the whistle and doesn’t count. Huntington inbounds the ball with less than 30 seconds left and has multiple attempts from deep to win it—Mayo took the final shot—and after Thomas corrals the final board, St. Pat’s throws it long to run the clock out. Game. St. Pat’s wins it, 78-76.
In the end, even though Mayo came up huge, Fisher’s almost equal performance, St. Pat’s mettle and timely contributions from the other Celtics were too much for the home team to overcome. For Huntington, Mayo finished with 47 points, including nine treys, and six boards, while Patterson contributed with 10 points, 12 boards and six blocks. For St. Pat’s, Fisher had 37 and six dimes in his mano a mano matchup with his good friend, Robinson dropped 23 and Thomas chipped in with 8 points and 12 boards. Next up for St. Pat’s after defending their top national ranking is the New Jersey state playoffs, where they’ll most likely have to face Bob Hurley Sr.’s undefeated St. Anthony’s squad, the third-ranked team in the country. Huntington will attempt to win its third consecutive West Virginia state chip.