By Christopher Lawlor
FORT MYERS, Fla. — In a result that was not anticipated by many, the Montverde (Fla.) Academy Lady Eagles pulled away late to capture the GEICO High School Nationals girls championship.
The final: Montverde 61, New Hope Academy (Landover Hills, Md.) 57 on Saturday morning in the Suncoast Credit Union Arena on the campus of Florida SouthWest State University.
New Hope was the top seed and did not suffer a loss since playing at the Nike Tournament of Champions before Christmas in Phoenix. Montverde last played a regular season game on Jan. 29 but the two-month layoff did not affect their play at GEICO Nationals.
The Lady Eagles conclude the program’s most successful season with a 20-3 record and a shiny silver trophy that will mark the beginning of an era.
It was a game that featured 10 ties and four lead changes. Vivian Iwuchukwu came through in the clutch at the ends of the third and fourth quarters. Iwuchukwu, who totaled nine points and five rebounds, gave the Lady Eagles the lead for good with 1:54 left and a 55-54 lead. She hit a free throw to extend it to 56-54.
New Hope’s Kennedy Fauntleroy lined up for a three-point field goal attempt with 70 second remaining that would have given her team the lead. New Hope forced a turnover on an inbounds play in the final minute, but Montverde coach Special Jennings burned her last timeout.
New Hope could have cut the deficit to one point but Alphonsia Elechio missed a layup. Georgia-bound Janiah Barker (eight points, 12 rebounds) then made two free throws for a five-point bulge (59-54). Fauntleroy’s 3-pointer with 2.3 seconds brought the Lady Tigers within two points but Mjracle Sheppard sealed the title with two free throws.
New Hope dropped to 28-3 but did win the National Association of Christian Athletes Division 1 title in February. Fauntleroy topped her team with 18 points and Louisville-signee Jalyn Brown added 14 points and four steals.
Fernanda Ovalle, a member of the Chilean U-16 National Team, went off for a game-high 21 points and Sheppard scored 10 of her 16 points after halftime. Montverde was steady at the free-throw line, sinking 19 of 24. New Hope only made 7 of 11 from the charity stripe.
It was game on in the dramatic fourth quarter.
Through three quarters, there was little separation between the teams as New Hope carved out a 47-46 lead. Iwuchukwu’s 3-pointer with 1 second left made it a one-point contest. There were five more ties in the stanza and New Hope built a 47-43 scoreline but Iwuchukwu drilled a three from straightaway at the horn.
By the midway marker of the third both teams refused to flinch. When New Hope went up 35-32, the Lady Eagles pushed back for a 37-35 when Sheppard converted a conventional three-point play. Elechio tied it at 37 with a scoop layup off a fastbreak at 4:33.
To think the score would be level at 28 by halftime showed that Montverde’s resiliency could not be denied. Barker, a McDonald’s All American managed just two points in the opening 16 minutes but teammate Ovalle more than made up for it. Ovalle, a Xavier signee, clicked for 15 points, making 6 of 9 shots, including two from downtown. Sheppard chipped in with six as Montverde withstood 11 turnovers and from eight down (24-16) early in the second.
The Georgetown-bound point guard Fauntleroy scored 14 points with two 3s and added two assists and three steals. New Hope made the most of second chance points at 14-10. The lead changed only once with five ties, including on Ovalle’s last-second steal and layup.
New Hope’s confidence started taking hold in the second quarter. The Lady Tigers played suffocating in-your-face defense, with active hand deflecting passes and clogging up the lanes. Brown canned her second 3 of the game from deep in the corner but Montverde’s Sheppard added a putback at 4:18 to disrupt a 5-0 run at 24-18.
The first quarter saw both teams flex their muscles in a physical especially in the paint. Brown’s long 3-pointer from the right wing beat the horn and gave the Lady Tigers a 16-13 lead. There were three ties in the quarter with Fauntleroy scoring nine points for New Hope and Ovalle hitting for eight for the other side.
Fauntleroy was particularly pesky off the bounce, slashing to the rim and finishing with precision.
Both teams wanted to push the pace in the opening minutes. Montverde held a 5-0 lead when Rusne Augustinaite hit for three and Ovalle converted a 15-footer. Ovalle gave the Lady Eagles an 8-4 edge moments later on a corner 3-pointer before Laila Reynolds (five points) scored inside to make it 8-6.
Montverde withstood the pressure and when the game was on the line, they produced. That’s a great way to end a season. –story written by Christopher Lawlor
GEICO Nationals All-Tournament Team: Janiah Barker (Montverde), Fernanda Ovalle (Montverde), Most Valuable Player Mjracle Sheppard (Montverde), Jalyn Brown (New Hope) and Taniya Lawson (New Hope).