By Christopher Lawlor
FORT MYERS, Fla. — Montverde (Fla.) Academy wait all season for moments such as this.
It is the sights and sounds of winning the GEICO High School Nationals boys’ tournament championship.
The sounds: the final horn blaring and the sheet delight of delirious screaming players, some playing in their final high school games.
The sights: staring at the scoreboard in disbelief and when the silverware exchanges hands.
The Montverde Eagles are making a habit of this and are getting accustomed to it. This time the Eagles needed to keep their composure and withstand a series of haymakers from Link Academy (Branson, Mo.) in the fourth quarter in a 60-49 triumph Saturday afternoon in the Suncoast Credit Union Arena on the campus of Florida SouthWest State University.
Montverde sealed back-to-back GEICO Nationals’ championships and it was the sixth time in program history under coach Kevin Boyle they have bagged the nation’s biggest chip. This surely will also cement another mythical national championship from the various rating services.
The Eagles have landed again at the top and finished with a 24-4 record. Link Academy, a first-year high school program from southwest Missouri, went 34-1 but this is just the beginning.
It was special day for Montverde after completing an unprecedented sweep of the boys and girls championship this week. Earlier in the day, the Lady Eagles toppled top-seeded New Hope Academy (Landover Hills, Md.) for an improbable title.
Montverde had four players score double figures: Dillon Mitchell (17 points), Malik Reneau and Dariq Whitehead (14 apiece) and Kwame Evans Jr. (11). The Eagles won it with interior coring, holding a decisive 32-14 advantage. Dillon and Mitchell also had double-doubles with each collecting 12 rebounds. Whitehead, a Duke recruit and Gatorade National Player of the Year, dished out six assists.
Julian Phillips scored 16 points and grabbed eight rebounds in the loss. Michigan-bound center Tarris Reed Jr. had seven points and four rebounds for the Lions, who managed only 17 of 53 from the floor for 32.1%.
The Eagles finished the contest with a 9-2 run after leading 51-47 with 3:46 to go.
Trey Green’s 3-pointer brought the Lions back at 39-38 but the Eagles closed with an 8-2 run for a 47-40 scoreline after three periods. Mitchell scored on back-to-back possessions, the second resulted in a give-and-go and ferocious two-handed dunk.
Omaha Billew might be the game’s top physical specimens and when Link’s muscle man dunks, he means it. That was the case midway into the third when the 6-foot-8 junior hammered down two points to keep the Lions close (39-35).
It appeared the game was headed to a 70 or 80- point pace in the first but reality sunk in and so did the physicality. Few, if any, teams on the national scene can match the intensity of the GEICO Nationals. It’s a three-day grind and teams earn the hardware.
That’s why the flow settled down to a manageable level and the Eagles were on top by five points at 30-25 heading into the break. Phillips sank a short fadeaway jumper with 8 seconds remaining for Link.
Neither team shot the ball particularly well, the Lions were 8 of 26 (30.8%) and the Eagles 12 of 34 (35.3%). Reneau had 13 points and eight rebounds in the opening half and Phillips added seven for the Lions.
Link clawed its way back from shortfalls of 10 and 11 points in the second and when Julian Norris buried a 3-pointer with 89 second left, the Lions were back in it. Link’s bench was useful, holding a 10-0 edge.
Reneau’s spin move was a thing of beauty in the second and pushed Montverde’s advantage to 13 points (23-10) but the Lions hung tough reducing it to 26-20 on Phillips’ two made free throws.
Montverde established the early pace and carried an 18-10 edge into the second quarter. Reneau cord eight points and Mitchell added seven. Walsh had four for the Lions.
Montverde held a leads of 13-4 and 15-6. Mitchell showed toughness late in first converting a conventional three-point play after being bumped hard on the right baseline. His lefthanded shot rolled in as did the subsequent free throw. –story written by Christopher Lawlor
GEICO Nationals All-Tournament Team: Most Valuable Player Dariq Whitehead (Montverde), Dillon Mitchel (Montverde), Malik Reneau (Montverde), Jordan Walsh (Link) and Tre White (Prolific Prep, Napa, Calif.).