SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Brewster Academy's Aaron Thomas stepped behind the three-point line as the buzzer loomed to end the third quarter, planted, and sank his shot. In perfect timing, he turned to the overflowing crowd behind press row, shrugged his shoulders and smirked to the delight of the Bobcats supporters that came out in droves.
It was arguably one of the most anticipated matchups of the weekend, and it didn't disappoint, what with the lack of love loss, trash talk over the internet, and embarrassment of riches on the court for talent. Brewster and Tilton entertained the crowd with highlight reel after highlight reel, but in the end it was the Bobcats coming away with their second win over Tilton this year, a 57-53 victory on day three of the Hoophall Classic at Springfield College's Blake Arena.
"In terms of atmosphere and overall environment, that's gotta be up there," Brewster head coach Jason Smith said. "I think it's awesome when we go into another NEPSAC Class AAA gym, those venues, but when you play here it's a whole other level. The crowd, the media, the national television game, we're just very fortunate to be in this position."
From the layup lines until the final seconds, the show lived up to its billing, and the swelling crowd -- energized by student sections from both schools, who made the nearly three-hour trek by bus -- added to the intensity. The Rams led after one quarter, 16-8, before the Bobcats turned in two inspired quarters to take a 48-36 lead headed into the final frame, capped with back-to-back putback slams from JaKarr Sampson (13 points, seven rebounds), and the buzzer-beating three from Thomas (23 points, 4-of-4 three-pointers).
"I was happy that my teammates were able to find me tonight," Thomas said. "If it weren't for my teammates, I wouldn't be in this situation right now."
Said Michigan commit Mitch McGary of Thomas, "He hit shots when we needed them, he got defensive stops when we needed them, he was just the best all-around player on the court today."
Shot-blocker extraordinaire Nerlens Noel (22 points, eight rebounds, seven blocks) headed to the bench towards the end of the third after picking up three fouls within a span of 1:16. But in the fourth quarter, the 6-foot-10 junior turned in one of his most inspired performances, redirecting a handful of shots that had some national experts on press row tweeting comparisons to Patrick Ewing. In one possession, Noel swatted McGary (12 rebounds) -- the nation's No. 2 overall player -- and then the putback attempt, leading to a two-handed slam from Wayne Selden (16 points) at the other end that sent the crowd off their feet and closed the lead to 50-45 with four minutes to go.
Brewster's T.J. Warren then dribbled off his foot on the ensuing possession, prompting a timeout from Smith, who told his guys to settle.
And down the stretch, the Bobcats played disciplined enough to hold off the Rams. McGary was called for goaltending to cut Brewster's lead to 54-51 with 1:35 left, but down at the other end he drew a foul from Goodluck Okonoboh and made one of two free throws. On the next possession down, Noel drove to his left past McGary but airballed a dunk attempt.
The dagger came with 25 seconds left, when Selden lost control of the ball near the scorer's table, and Jalen Reynolds picked up a foul after the steal. He sank both free throws to make it a three-possession game.
So while the Bobcats come away with their second win of the season over Tilton, Noel left all in attendance drawing up comparisons to an assortment of former high school greats, from Patrick Ewing to Alonzo Mourning to Greg Oden.
"He's a freak of nature," Smith said of Noel. "He's a kid that, you know, I'm going to be sitting on the porch 15 or 20 years from now, saying 'I coached against that guy when he was in high school'. He's going to have a long-time pro career because he's very coachable, he has the right mindset...and I think Wayne [Selden] is in the same boat."