By Christopher Lawlor
FORT MYERS, Fla. – There are no upsets or Cinderella stories at the GEICO High Schools just the best schoolboy basketball anywhere.
Take Thursday afternoon when a pair of nationally ranked program with strong dossiers took the court. Link Academy (Branson, Mo.) may have been the higher seed but St. Paul VI (Chantilly, Va.) was their equal.
And so, it came down to made free throws and rebounds for the Link Lions. In the fourth quarter, the Lions dropped 12 of 14 free throws and won the war on the boards but the game was decided until DeShawn Harris-Smith potential game-tying 3-pointer with three seconds clanged off the rim in a narrow 68-65 win over the Panthers in the GEICO Nationals quarterfinals inside the Suncoast Credit Union Arena on the campus of Florida SouthWest State University.
Harris-Smith, the wonderful Maryland recruit, closed out a brilliant prep career with 18 points and gave the Panther faithful one last glimpse of his talent, nailing a long, 3-pointer with 16 seconds to make it 66-65.
North Carolina-bound junior guard Elliot Cadeau then calmly sank two free throws with 14.8 seconds left for the final margin. Link still needed to watch as Harris-Smith launched an open look from the left wing.
It barely missed.
PVI, which went unbeaten in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference regular season and captured the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association Division I title earlier this month, concluded 31-4.
Ben Hammond and Isaiah Abraham each tossed in 10 points for the Panthers.
Link went to 25-1 and will play Sunrise Christian Academy (Bel Aire, Kan.) in the semifinals on Friday.
The Lions won the rebounding battle, 35-28, with 15 second-chance points. That was the difference.
As was Ja’Kobe Walter, a Baylor signee, who lit it up with a game-high 34 points on 10 of 18 shooting (four 3-pointers) and 10 of 13 from the charity stripe. Corey Chest Jr. added 10 points and 10 rebounds for a double-double.
Trailing 57-56 with 2 ½ minutes left, the Lions scored the next four to make to it 61-56 on Walters’ thunderous dunk to complete a fastbreak with two minutes to go.
Despite getting outscored in the third, the Lion clung to a one-point lead at 46-45. The Panthers rallied with 10 uninterrupted points for a 44-40 edge on Ben Hammonds’ floater in the lane with 2:29 left.
PVI won the quarter 19-14 making 7 of 9 shots and both three-point attempts.
The Panthers came out sizzling an after five minutes took the lead 42-40 when Darren Harris buried a long, transition 3-pointer from the left wing. That capped a quick 8-0 burst for PVI.
The Lions maintained their lead throughout the opening 16 minutes, mostly because they shot 50% (13 of 26) from the floor. The Missouri school held a 16-11 rebounding edge. Walter paced the offensive with 12 points to fuel a 32-26m halftime scoreline.
Harris-Smith accounted for half of his team’s points with 12, including two 3-pointers. Isaiah Abraham added nine as the Panthers played catchup in the opening half. They managed one lead in the first minute and after that Link pushed the transition game and hit its shots with consistency.
Tyler McKinley’s dunk with 4:01 left in the second gave the Lions a six-point edge at 25-19. Less than a minute later, Walter’s twisting layup off an offensive rebound bumped the lead to eight points.
The Lions settled for a 19-15 lead through one quarter after taking edges of double-figures. They shot 8 of 10, including 2 of 3 from the arc. Walter, Cameron Carr and Jacob Cole scored five points apieces while Harris-Smith kept the Panthers close with eight.
When Abraham swish ed 3-pointer early in the first, PVI reduced the deficit to one point (6-5). The Lions stormed back with the next nine for a 14-5 lead midway through the quarter.
The Lions largest lead of the half was 11 points in the first.