By Matt Caputo

This past Saturday morning I up to New England and met our Publisher, Dennis Paige, courtside at the Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass. The event was presented by Spalding and pitted 40-plus high school teams from around the country against each other in a showcase format stretching from Friday night right into Martin Luther King Day (Monday) at Springfield College. As the legend goes, Springfield is the “birthplace of basketball” and is now the home of the Basketball Hall of Fame.

A brisk drive on I-95 was a nice change after a kind of hectic week in and out of the office. Tuesday night I took in a Knicks game, a tremendous victory over the Washington Wizards I won’t soon forget. Wednesday I made my usual CYO practice, as assistant coach of the St. Pancras Cougars seventh grade A-squad. Thursday night I was in Long Island to watch George Mason down Hofstra. This tournament was perfect for me, I work in basketball and in my free time I like to watch and coach basketball, so I’m a hoop head and spending the weekend watching high school games in the place where the game was created sounded great to me.

I drove up from New York alone and when I got to the arena at Springfield College, Dennis was already courtside, sitting on the floor alongside legendary scout Tom Konchalski and Fairfield University Assistant Coach, Aki Smith. Pine Crest School of Florida was romping local Holyoke High School in the second half. Just as I got settled in my seat Pine Crest of Florida won the game 95-47 and Dennis said he was hungry.

The first little detour of my trip came when I took Dennis to White Hut, by far one of the best hamburger establishments in the Northeast. My brother put me on to White Hut when he was playing college ball at nearby Westfield State and I’ve sworn by it ever since. Not to be confused (save for their smaller sized burgers) with White Castle, While Hut is a single business located in West Springfield that dates back to 1939. After lunch, Dennis was glad he hired me.

After lunch, we showed up just in time to catch Norwich Free Academy of New Hampshire take on Commerce High School, another local team, from Springfield. Commerce had tied held NFA to a tie in the first quarter, but from there on the game seemed like a highlight reel for NFA’s R.J. Evans, who will play at Holy Cross University next year.

Commerce struggled to compete with NFA, who was 10-1 coming in, and fell completely out in the third quarter where they only managed to score 6 points. NFA went on to win 69-40 and R.J. Evans finished with 31 points.

In the next game, both Dennis and I were equally impressed with Chester High School (PA) point guard Karon Burton. In a very close game with Montverde Academy of Florida, Burton’s hard, aggressive play and clutch scoring helped Chester overcome a second frame where they were outscored 18-9.

Montverde’s big three of Dashan Harris (heading to Texas A & M), Marcus Capers (Washington State) and Steve Tchiengang all scored in double-figures, but didn’t quite have enough to stop Burton, and Pittsburgh-bound Nazir Robinson (13 points, 6 rebounds) as Chester earned a one point win over Monteverde 63-61.

After that, Lance Stevenson came out onto the floor wearing Nike sneakers and only the press and coaches in the crowd noticed. His Abraham Lincoln team had come from Brooklyn (wearing adidas on their feet) to take on Milwaukee Pius High School.

Milwaukee Pius sharpshooter Korie Luscious accounted for most of the shine on the court. Although his team trailed by 15 at half, Luscious scored 18 points and seemed to be out performing Lance Stevenson who ended the first half with only 12 points.

However Lincoln held Luscious to only 3 points in the second half and Stevenson was able to double both his point and rebound numbers, finishing with 24 points and 13 boards. Milwaukee Pius was just over-matched and lost this one 89-56.

In the nightcap, Springfield Central took on Madison Park high of Boston. Central, who had a lot of support on hand for this cross-state match-up, dominated from the get-go. Madison Park scored only 13 points in the second half and their bench was cleared early in the fourth quarter. Central forward Preye Preboye had an impressive game finishing with Preboye finished with 16 points for Springfield in their 65-30 runaway over Madison Park.

After the game, the Spalding Skills Challenge included dunk, 3-point and “two-ball”-like contests. Since two-ball turns my stomach, I will only mention the first two.

Those who participated in the dunk-off were Darien Brothers (Benedictine), Brandon Robinson (Chester), Li Chao (China), Eladio Espinosa (Hargrave), Marcus Capers (Montverde), Darius Johnson (Patterson), and Laurence Bowers (St. George’s). After a pretty good showing from everyone who entered the contest, it was Darius Johnson who won the contest on point’s to become the first-ever Hoophall Classic dunk champ.

The 3-point contest was pretty tight as well, Damier Pitts of (Hargrave) and Ben Mockford stretched the game into an extra round, but it was Pitts who out scored Mockford 13-7 to cleanly win the contest.

The ride to the downtown Marriott was short and pretty direct. Luckily, the only room available was a handicapped one and it was a palace. Springfield is sleepy enough to have a quite weekend in, but with enough to do to stay occupied for a few days. Unfortunately there was a pee-wee hockey tournament in town and when I got to my room I found three dozen or so pint—sized hockey players (some with cake covering their faces) hand overthrown the hall ways. Their parents were drunk and encouraged the mini-goons to run wild.

Sunday’s games were kicked off by probably the weekend’s most interesting match-up. A team of “Chinese Jr. All-Stars” took on Brewster Academy of New Hampshire. Although the All-Stars took the ball from Brewster on their first possession, our friends from the Far East were never really in the game. Brewster was way too aggressive and confident on both ends of the floor. I have no idea what league the Chinese players could have been All-Stars in.
Despite their efforts, the Chinese All-Stars were down 30 points during most of the first half (some games were played in halves instead of quarters) and by over 60 points in the second. While clearly out-skilled, you really got the sense that the Chinese players were learning a lot just from being out there. Ultimately though, Brewster Academy defeated the Chinese All-Stars, who were coached by Americans via an interpreter, 111-47. The saving grace of this game was that Brewster senior Chauncey Gilliam put on a tremendous dunk display and led the Bobcats with 24 points. The kid has professional hops. Xavier bound Mark Lyons was named the games top player with 23 points and 4 assists.

In the next game, St. George’s School of Tennessee, which usually features the pair of Duke-bound Elliott Williams and the Missouri-bound Laurence Bowers, faced off against Benedictine High School of Richmond, VA. But St. George’s played without Williams and struggled against a really well coached St. B’s team. In fact, St. Benedictine was so dominant early on that they shutout St. George 25-0 in the first quarter. St. Benedictine, who entered the game 17-3, was equally relentless holding a 30-point lead over St. George (14-0 coming in) through most of the second quarter. Benedictine senior Ed Davis had a strong 17 in the first half and should only improve on his way to the University of North Carolina. The end result left Benedictine the victor over St. George’s 69-49. Ed Davis, finished with 21 points, 10 boards and 4 blocked shots.

The following game pitted The Patterson School of North Carolina (in pretty nice University of Pittsburgh knockoff uniforms) against the Winchendon School of Maryland in what was the closest game I’d seen all day. During the announcements of the starting line-up, I noticed Patterson’s center was announced and listed at a generous 6’10, but Winchendon’s John Riek Saus stepped onto the court at a long 7’2. This game was a little closer, Patterson only trailed by 7 at the first timeout and by that time Patterson point guard Courtney Fortson, headed to Arkansas, had all of his team’s points (7). At the end of 16 minutes of basketball, things were all knotted up at 40 a piece.

In the second half, Patterson began to pull themselves back into the game, mostly due to the fact that John Riek was called for goaltending three times early in the second half. However, Winchendon’s Larry Anderson would not go quietly, finishing with 24 points and 7 boards. The end result had the Patterson School; led by Fortson’s 21 points, edge out Winchendon 69-68.

Oak Hill Academy (VA)
and Mount St. Joseph High School out of Maryland played a tight first half, volleying a one-point lead throughout most of it. Brandon Jennings held the ball in the final seconds of the first half and nailed a big three to put Oak Hill ahead by one to close the first half, proving it was a good idea to include him on the cover of our most recent issue of PUNKS.

This one turned into the most competitive game of the night and even with the Patriots playing a big game on national television the gym was packed. Brandon Jennings and Mount Saint Joe’s Henry Sims were in a showdown of shorts, keeping the game close and scoring into the twenties.

With a minute to go in the fourth quarter, the game was locked at 69. But Jennings cut the lane in half and found Glenn Bryant on the baseline to go ahead by two. Mount St. Joe’s answering back with a lone foul shot. The crowd backed MSJ, but with less than twenty seconds left Oak Hill missed a long jumper. Jennings found the rebounder, quickly stripped him, and walked towards and easy lay-up for the two-point lead. Oak Hill then stole MSJ’s inbound and won the game 73-70 powered by Jennings 32 points.

Up next, Coach Danny Hurley and his Saint Benedict Grey Bee’s of Newark, NJ squared off against regular powerhouse DeMatha Catholic High School from Hyattsville, MD. St. Benedict’s lead for most of the first half by controlling the pace and sharing the ball exceptionally well. At half, however, St. Benedict’s was up 41-15.

While his son Dan was coaching on the court, legendary high school coach Bob Hurley Sr. stepped into the building and quickly took a lot of attention away from the blowout on the hardwood. The elder Hurley roamed the crowd (followed by what looked to be documentary film makers) doing interviews and signing autographs. He sat in the stands behind me for a moment.

“Hey Coach, how’s Bobby junior doing?” one older fan asked, speaking of course of Bobby Hurley, the point guard who lead Duke to back-to-back titles in the 90’s and had his NBA career tragically derailed in a car accident.

“He’s good,” the legendary coach of St. Anthony’s H.S. (N.J.) answered. “He lives in Florida, raises horses and is coaching middle-schoolers.”

In the second half, St.B’s was almost totally dominant, building a 30-point lead. Samardo Samuels was dominant on the inside and finished with 22 points and only 7 rebounds. Tamir Jackson also had a strong scoring effort for the Grey Bees and finished with 20 points. When all was said and done St. Benedicts ran away with a 75-41 victory.

In the 7 o’clock game, South Kent School (out of C.T.) hit the court with five D1 players and their opponent’s Hargrave Military Academy (V.A.) had five of their own, as well as some really loud orange uniforms that had me kinda dizzy even before they started running around.

Hargrave point man Dee Bost (who had five guys in the crowd spelling his name out on their t-shirts) showed a ton of confidence by scoring 8 of his teams first 13 points. In the first of two halves in this game, Hargrave maintained a slight lead over South Kent and began pulling away as poor fouls killed SK’s progress. At halftime, Hargrave lead 41-26.

The second half proved to be more of the same, Hargrave went ahead by over twenty in the second half and South Kent still struggled to find their rhythm. Boost finished with 21 points and 5 dimes, while Hargrave’s Damier Pitts walked away as the Player of the Game with 22 points and 10 assists as Hargrave was victorious over South Kent 90-68.

In the final game of the evening, St. Benedict’s (the same school, different squad) brought out their “prep” or their post-graduate team to take on St. Thomas Moore, another prep school out of Connecticut.

Although St. Thomas fell behind early, Indiana-bound Devin Ebanks, who looked sort of thin, played a real active game while trying to control a well-oiled Benedict’s team. In the process, the elder Grey Bees went ahead 16-2 about four minutes into the first half. Despite the deficit, St.Thomas fought hard to stay in the game and pull themselves close in the last five minutes of the first half.

At about 9:36 pm, the first half of this game came to a close with a huge three pointer from half court to THIN the score to 39-32.

In the second half, it was more of the same concentrated effort by St. Benedicts. To his credit, Ebanks left the game with his team down 18 and went right to the bench and cheered on his teammates. However, when the fat lady sang, St. Benedict’s earned themselves a good win, 70-58.

As the lights faded at Springfield College’s Blake Arena, I retreated back to the Marriott and end another day. I got back into my room just in time to order up a small pizza before fading into the big snooze.

When I get to the gym the next morning, Irv Gotti is in the stands to cheer on his nephew, Blaise French, who plays for Holy Cross High School from Queens. They were in town to take on Archbishop Mitty of San Jose, CA.

When the starting line-ups are announced, I was proud to say Kayvon Roberts of Holy Cross was on my team when I coached at Jack Curran’s Basketball Camp in Queens about six years ago. Big day for my pride!

Early on, this was game was pretty close through the entire first quarter, with a good number of lead changes. Sylven Landesberg drained a big three to put his team up two at the end of the first quarter. Mitty stayed tough and took a few slight leads in the second quarter. However, at the end of the first half, Holy Cross held a three-point lead.

The game stayed close in the second half. Holy Cross began to pull away but Mitty was hungry and stayed very much in the game. Park of their fight could be credited to Bucknell-bound Enoch Andoh and unsigned 6’7 senior Angelo Caloiaro, who impressed courtside scouts with his sweet stroke and apparent potential.

Holy Cross held a four point lead throughout the fourth quarter, but with 1:30 to go it was a 2-point game. But underneath the Holy Cross basket Kayvon Roberts snuck in the lane, caught the ball in the air and put his team back up by four. Still, Mitty wouldn’t go away Collin Chiverton nailed a big three to pull Mitty winthin one. After a Holy Cross turnover Andoh stole the ball, ran the floor and hit a jumper in the lane to give Mitty a one-point advantage with 18 seconds left. A Mitty foul on the next possession left only 9.5 seconds on the clock. A jump ball after the in-bound left only 2.5 seconds.

After fumbling to get the ball, Mitty got a quick steal and won the game 62-61, in the most competitive contest of the weekend.

Game two on Monday featured Taft High School of California against St. Raymond’s High School from down in the Bronx.

The St. Ray’s sneakers are pretty dope, especially because they are probably the best team in New York wearing Knicks/Mets/Islanders colors. The intriguing match-up in this game was between St.Ray’s Darryl Bryant and Taft’s Larry Drew, both point guards committed to West Virginia and North Carolina respectively.

St.Ray’s took an early lead, but Taft leaned on 6’4 senior Bryce Smith who nailed three big threes and a quick lay-up to keep his team close. At the end of the first QT, it was a two-point game.

Darryl Bryant was the first of the two big point guard to get on the board with a nasty one-handed dunk. Bryce Smith worked his hot hand while Drew struggled to find an offensive rhythm. However, at the end of the first half, it was all tied up at 37.

In the second half, Drew became more aggressive and kept the game tied. But halfway through the third, the lead began going back and fourth. The competitive attitudes of both these teams was a breath of fresh air in a showcase where many games have been routings.

In the fourth quarter, St. Ray’s nursed an 11 and began working to kill the clock. The lead swelled to 15 and St.Raymond’s won 84-69.

Seeing as their were no more New York teams on the bill, I figured it was my cue to fire up the whip and head back down to the city.