by Christopher Lawlor
FORT MYERS, Fla. – Kendall Brown and Kennedy Chandler are McDonald’s All Americans for a reason and it starts on defense.
Sure, two of the nation’s top players, both headed to high-major programs in Power-5 conferences, can score the basketball but what about when the game is one the line?
Well, the dynamite dup of Sunrise Christian Academy (Bel Aire, Kan.) came to the rescue late in the fourth quarter when the Buffaloes season was headed home. Key defensive stops led to a scintillating 56-55 thriller over seventh-seeded Prolific Prep (Napa, Calif.) Thursday in the quarterfinal round of the GEICO High School Nationals at Suncoast Credit Union Arena on the campus of Florida SouthWestern State College.
Prolific was contend on grinding it out in the half court while Sunrise’s group of thoroughbreds wanted to thrive in the open court. In the end, Sunrise leaned on defense that coach Luke Barnwell stresses daily in practice.
“We came out slow in the second half but we’ve been in this situation before. We just made a big defensive stop at the end,” said Chandler, who contributed 11 points, six steals, five assists and three rebounds.
When Kansas-bound center Zach Clemence (12 points, six rebounds) converted a reverse dunk with 33 seconds left, Sunrise took the lead for good. Chandler and Brown both forced turnovers in the final minute and when Kamari Lands’ off-balance long jumper missed at the buzzer, the Buffaloes limped into the semifinals.
The Baylor-bound Chandler finished with a game-high 21 points on 10 of 19 shooting, four rebounds and two key steals. Gradey Dick, a junior commit to Kansas, scored all nine points after the break.
Meanwhile, Prolific split two games at its first GEICO Nationals and went 31-4 under first-year coach Mark Phelps, a former Division I head coach at Drake.
Stefan Todorovic, a junior from Serbia, topped the Crew with 12 points. All-American center Nate Bittle closed out his high school career with 10 points, six rebounds and four assists. The game featured six lead changes and three ties.
Sunrise, which favors up-tempo, outscored the Northern California team 14-4 in transition points and 28-22 in the paint.
With less than four minutes left and Sunrise in a seven-point hole, Clemence deposited a deep three-ball from the corner to pull his team back to 51-47. But the Buffaloes, who lost twice to Montverde (Fla.) Academy and AZ Compass Prep (Chandler, Ariz.), were not used to a deficit late in the contest.
Prolific connected on 9 of 13 shots in the third quarter and used a 21-11 showing to carry a 45-40 lead into the fourth. The five-point advantage was the Crew’s largest of the game. The Crew’s backcourt shared the ball with six assists. Bittle and Todorovic each had nine points apiece with eight minutes to go.
Bittle led the Crew to a 37-34 edge midway through the third quarter. The future Oregon Duck big man was active on the offensive glass, slamming home a missed shot and then gaining inside position for a put back during an 11-2 surge. Adem Bona also added a perfectly timed alley-oop dunk from Todorovic early in the frame. Bona would later foul out with two minutes left with nine points and six blocked shots but his interior presence was sorely missed down the stretch.
By halftime, the Buffaloes were up 29-24 and showed the resolve of a nationally ranked program when it coughed up an eight-point lead. Sunrise wound up making 12 of 30 shots for 40 percent after a hot start.
Chandler, who signed with Tennessee, showed why he will be an impact player next year in the Southeastern Conference, scoring 11 points, canning 5 of 8 shots, and made four steals. Lands, a junior from Indianapolis, led a balanced score sheet with six points on two 3s for the Crew. Prolific sank 10 of 23 shots, including four 3s, for 43.5 percent but were outrebound 19-15.
In the second quarter, Prolific snatched its first lead at 21-20 when Jordan Pope splashed a 3-pointer, completing an 11-7 run. Brown then added five points, including a three, as Sunrise regained the lead at 25-22 with two minutes left in the half.
After a sluggish start and a timeout, Prolific settled down and trailed 13-10 after one. Sunrise made its first five shots but then cooled off missing the next eight. It was 8-0 before the Crew awoke. Todorovic and Land scored three points apiece to lead the rally.
The Buffaloes came out of the shoot charging and building an earl 13-5 lead. Prolific did not want to get into a track meet with the Kansas powerhouse but did. Chandler scored five points and Kenny Pohto and Clemence each tallied three. Sunrise tallied two baskets in transition before Prolific called timeout.