By Christopher Lawlor
FORT MYERS, Fla. – Link Academy (Branson, Mo.) nearly took things granted before a healthy dose of reality kicked in.
The Lions enjoyed a large lead in the first half and into the third quarter. All the while eighth-seeded Sunrise Christian Academy (Bel Aire, Kan.) just kept within touching distance.
The Buffaloes actually clipped 24 points off a once mammoth lead before the Lions pushed back to score the game’s final seven points in a 67-61 victory in the GEICO High School semifinals Friday evening at the Suncoast Credit Union Arena on the campus of Florida SouthWestern State University.
So, it is set.
The Lions play AZ Compas Prep (Chandler, Ariz.) Saturday in the GEICO Nationals final at 12 p.m. EDT on ESPN. Both teams have reached the GEICO finals over the past two tournaments only to have Montverde (Fla.) Academy win twice.
This year there will be a first-time champion. The last first time champion was IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) in 2019 when the event was played at Christ the King High School in Middle Village, N.Y.
When Sunrise’s Miro Little (13 points) hit a three-point field goal from the left baseline with 2:31 left, the Buffaloes lead for the first time since the opening period at 61-60.
Cameron Carr, who scored a team-high 18 points, scored on an alley-oop slam dunk, lay-in off a pretty feed from junior point guard Elliot Cadeau and a short jumper all in the final 90 seconds to clinch it.
Cadeau had quite a game with16 points, including 4 of 6 from 3-point land, and 10 assists to complete his double-double. Corey Chest Jr. added 11, making all five shots from the floor.
Ohio State-bound Scotty Middleton led everyone with 22 points, canning four 3-pointers, Matas Buzelis had 12 and Arkansas-recruit Layden Blocker added 10 for the Buffaloes.
The second quarter was evenly played with the Lion taking a 39-16 lead at 2:56 before the Buffaloes scored the final nine points of the half to keep themselves within striking distance.
Instead of the game turning into a rout, the Buffaloes refused to back down and chopped the scoreline down to 52-46 after three quarters.
Remember, the Lions were up 23 points in the second quarter. The Buffaloes did not fold and maintained their steady attack and focus. m
The Buffaloes won the third 21-13, shaving off eight points as they shot 7 of 11 for the second straight quarter and knocked down 3 of 4 3-pointers.
Cadeau had 10 points and five assists while Carr contributed eight points, with two 3-pointers. The Lions shot 13 of 23 from the field and 6 of 11 from downtown. Link scored 14 points off eight turnovers.
Middleton, who won the quarterfinals game with a late 3-pointer the previous day, scored nine points and Buzelis added seven in the first half for the Buffaloes.
The Lions turned a five-point lead into 12 in a flash at 24-10 at 59 seconds before settling for 27-10 after one period. Cadeau had 10 points, with two 3-pointers.
In the early going, the Lions picked where they left off the previous day in the quarterfinals. After four minutes it was 15-10. Cadeau tested his range from beyond the arc canning 2 of 2 for six points and the Lions were feeling it at 4 of 6 from the field.
But it was early and only Link’s surge kept that feeling alive for another game.