- Christopher Lawlor, High School Basketball
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Bizarre. Unexpected. That aptly describes the paths taken on Tuesday by Paterson (N.J.) Catholic and Winter Park (Fla.) to the finals of the 37th City of Palms Classic at Bishop Verot High.
Paterson Catholic rallied from the brink of defeat to upend Montverde (Fla.) 63-51 in overtime. Junior guard Myles Mack scored 21 points and sank a free throw to knot the score at 47 with one-tenth of a second left in regulation.
Meanwhile, Winter Park defeated St. Benedict's (Newark, N.J.) 73-60. Austin Rivers, the No. 2-rated junior in the nation, torched St. Benedict's for 45 points. Winter Park is the tournament's first Florida school in the championship game since 1999.
The Paterson Catholic-Winter Park title tilt will tip Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. ET on ESPNU, with Doug Bell (play by play) and Paul Biancardi (color) calling the action. The ESPNU doubleheader opens at 7:30 p.m. with St. Benedict's and Montverde battling for third place.
"In all my years, I've never seen an ending like that," Montverde coach Kevin Sutton said.
When 6-foot-6 Montverde senior Haukur Palsson converted two free throws with 0.1 second left for a 47-46 lead, a Montverde player on the bench was hit with a technical foul for taunting an opposing player on the court.
Mack made 1-of-2 free throws, sending the game into the extra session, where the Cougars used a 16-4 showing for their third straight victory to open the season.
The zany, chaotic ending capped an unexpected evening, since many felt the losing sides would be playing for the title.
"We've won 12 straight pre- or post-Christmas tournaments in the last eight years; playing in a consolation game is uncharted territory for us," St. Benedict's coach Dan Hurley said.
Here's a closer look at both contests.
Winter Park vs. Paterson Catholic: Winter Park's Rivers, who has 88 points in three tournament games, is one win away from bagging his second straight City of Palms Most Valuable Player honors. He'll need help from 6-2 guard Brett Comer. The Florida Atlantic signee scored 16 points Tuesday. Expect Paterson Catholic to play sticky man defense, with Seton Hall-bound forward Fuquan Edwin shadowing Rivers. The crowd will be squarely in Winter Park's favor. "I feed off the crowd; it's like playing a home game," said Rivers, who dropped 47 points in last year's third-place game.
Biancardi, ESPNU's National Recruiting Director: "You have to wonder how much gas Austin Rivers has in the tank. He's delivered on a big stage this week. He can score the basketball, rebound and get assists. That's rare for a scorer like Austin to do all three so well. Paterson Catholic has the athletes and needs to play with composure."
St. Benedict's vs. Montverde Academy: This one had the look of a championship game, but the loser will go home after splitting four tournament games. St. Benedict's (and Texas-bound) junior guard Myck Kabongo is averaging 20.3 points in three games but was straddled with foul trouble Tuesday. The Gray Bees can't afford this on two consecutive nights; Kabongo's on-court presence is a key to their success.
Unheralded St. Benedict's senior Mike Poole, a 6-6 forward, has contributed 13 points per game in the tourney, nine above his season average.
Montverde needs to refocus after a gut-wrenching loss Tuesday. "We're both coming off losses," Sutton said. "You can bet both teams will play hard and execute their respective systems soundly." James Bell (Villanova), Jamail Jones (Marquette) and Papa Samba Ndao (Boston College) are the main scoring threats for the Eagles.
Added Biancardi: "Montverde has to play hard; they have to play without emotions, trying to forget last night's game. Myck [Kabongo] has to stay out of foul trouble, especially away from the basket. The team that controls their emotions will have the advantage."
Josue Celestin of Fort Myers High won the Edison National Bank Slam Dunk competition Tuesday night. Players from the City of Palms Classic participated in the event, unleashing their high-wire acts to the delight of the hometown fans.
Celestin, a razor-thin 6-7 senior, emphatically slammed home the winning dunk, totaling 47 of a possible 50 points awarded by the judges. Celestin edged Dwayne Polee of Westchester (Los Angeles), whose best effort scored 45 points off a bounce-and-catch windmill slam.
"I was nervous," Celestin said. "But once it went down, it was mind-blasting."
Celestin, an unsigned senior, is playing his first year of varsity ball and hopes to play next year in college.
The City of Palms Classic wraps up its 37th event Wednesday with a bonanza of eight games, starting at 8:20 a.m. ET, with De La Salle (Chicago) vs. Sagemont (Weston, Fla.).
The remainder of the schedule (all times Eastern): St. Frances (Baltimore)-Penn Wood (Lansdowne, Pa.), 10 a.m.; Butler (Huntsville, Ala.)-Dudley (Greensboro, N.C.), 11:40 a.m.; Findlay Prep (Henderson, Nev.)-Fort Myers (Fla.), 3 p.m.; Milton (Alpharetta, Ga.)-Westchester (Los Angeles), 4:40 p.m.; Providence School (Jacksonville, Fla.)-Krop (Miami), 4:40 p.m., in a Sunshine Series game; third-place is 7:30 p.m. and final is 9:30 p.m.
Reach the beach
Don Diener has taken teams to the City of Palms Classic in Florida and Iolani Classic in Honolulu.
Diener, coach of Hamilton High in Milwaukee, can add another high-profile event to his portfolio Saturday when the 29th Beach Ball Classic commences at the Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Convention Center for its annual five-day run.
The final is Dec. 31 at 7:30 p.m. ET, with the semifinals on Wednesday.
The Beach Ball Classic, City of Palms and Iolani are considered the three most powerful, prestigious holiday tournaments on the landscape, with promoters annually landing ranked teams and high-profile players.
Since 1981, players such as Kobe Bryant, Kenny Anderson, Rasheed Wallace, Vince Carter, Raymond Felton, Baron Davis and Jermaine O'Neal have participated.
"The vision from the beginning was bring top teams and players to the people of South Carolina; we're proud of what we've built," said tournament director John Rhodes, who recently won a runoff election for his second term as mayor of Myrtle Beach. "We're only as good as the help and support we've received from the community."
Diener is anticipating a challenge, starting Saturday afternoon against hometown Socastee.
"It's one of the premier tournaments in the country and we're excited to be a part of it," said Diener, who built a national powerhouse at Vincent (Milwaukee) from 1992-2008. "When I first started at Vincent, we didn't have an identity, but once you start winning and having success at tournaments like this, the confidence builds. That's our aim."
Hamilton (3-0), heads into the BBC as Wisconsin's top-ranked large school (Division 1). Diener inherited a program that went 20-85 in the previous six seasons. Last year, Hamilton finished 19-4, and a bevy of talented juniors and sophomores have returned.
Elgin Cook (No. 12 small forward) and Darnell Harris (No. 13 small forward) are both juniors. Cook, a 6-6 slasher, is expected to sign with Iowa State, while Harris is a skilled 6-8 guard who is comfortable 20 feet from the basket and is fielding several high-major offers.
The Beach Ball Classic has two players from the ESPNU 100: PG Kendall Marshall (No. 19) of Bishop O'Connell (Arlington, Va.), who signed with North Carolina, and SF Jelani Kendrick (No. 24) of Wheeler (Marietta, Ga.), a Memphis recruit.
Damien Leonard, No. 21 in the ESPNU Super 60, is the lone ranked junior. Leonard, a 6-5 forward, plays for J.L. Mann (Greenville, S.C.), while 6-4 sophomore Shabazz Muhammad of Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas) is a Terrific 25 player.
The 28-game schedule tips off Saturday with four first-round games (all times Eastern): Hamilton (Milwaukee)-Socastee (Myrtle Beach, S.C.), 3:30 p.m.; Nichols School (Buffalo, N.Y.)-Daniel (Central, S.C.), 5:15 p.m.; Concord (N.C.)-Myrtle Beach (S.C.), 7 p.m.; Columbia (Decatur, Ga.)-Mann (Greenville, S.C.), 8:45 p.m.
Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA TODAY.
It took a few unexpected twist for both Patterson Catholic and Winter Park to earn spots in the title game at the City of Palms Classic, writes Christopher Lawlor.