By Christopher Lawlor
FORT MYERS, Fla. – A year after disappointment, the Link Academy (Branson, Mo.) Lions returned with a vengeance to the GEICO High School Nationals.
No way would they be denied in the championship game. They are taking the hardware back to southwest Missouri and would not take no for an answer.
This time they weren’t denied.
From the opening tip, the Lions wanted it more.
Their play was ferocious and it showed.
GEICO Nationals champions has a nice ring to it. Well, that’s the only moniker befitting the team that wears the crown following three grueling games over three days.
The fourth-seeded Lions knocked off AZ Compass Prep (Chandler, Ariz.), 71-55, Saturday afternoon inside the Suncoast Credit Union Arena on the campus of Florida SouthWestern State University.
The heartbreak from last year’s 60-49 loss to Montverde (FL.) Academy hung over the program until April.
Link concluded a championship season with a near-flawless 27-1 record. The lone loss was an 84-58 setback to Montverde on Feb. 3. Link might have had a rematch with the Eagles in the semifinals but that was scratched out after an upset loss in the GEICO Nationals quarterfinals.
Ja’Kobe Walter, the Most Valuable Player, pumped in a game-high 21 point, draining 3 of 4 from the three-point line. North Carolina-bound point guard Eliott Cadeau finished with 11 points, five assists but set the tone early in the first quarter. Cameron Carr scored 17 points and cleared six rebounds.
For the game, the Lions shot 26 of 49 (53.1%) and 8 of 17 from beyond the arc (47.1%).
Tru Washington scored 13 points and Rayvon Griffith added 12 for the seventh-seeded Dragons, who finished with a 25-5 mark.
The Lions scored the first five points of the third quarter en route to a 13-point edge, 54-41.
Link kept pouring it on in the third were up 46-28 when McKinney dropped in a short jumper with 5:50 left.
For most of the first half, the Dragons were chasing the Lions. They were often down by double figures and occasionally cut the lead to two possessions. But 7 of 18 shooting won’t cut it in championship games. The scoring was spread out with Ross scoring six points.
Walter (14 points) and McKinney carried the bulk of the load combining for 25 points but the Lions shot a respectable 14 of 25 (56%) and 4 of 11 from downtown.
Midway through the second, Walter paced Link’s scoring attack with 11 points as they were up 24-17. The Lions came out with an 8-2 run in the opening three minutes of the quarter and held a 22-12 edge.
The Lions jumped to a 14-8 lead after one quarter. They shot 6 of 13 with Cadeau tallying four points. The Lions led 12-5 with 1:39 left.
The Dragons managed only 4 of 9 from the floor with four players scoring.
That essentially told the story for the Arizonans, who advanced to the GEICO Nationals final for the second time in the last three years.
All-Tournament team: Ja’Kobe Walter (MVP) and Elliot Cadeau, Link Academy; Scotty Middleton, Sunrise Christian Academy (Bel Aire, Kan.); Blue Cain, IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.); and Tru Washington, AZ Compass Prep.