Smith semifinalists loom large
CHANDLER, Ariz. -- If you like your basketball bold and beautiful, fit for the digital HD and 3D era and full of high-scoring and dazzling maneuvers, this year's Joe Smith Invitational Division of the Nike Tournament of Champions may not be the tournament for you.
Heralded as the strongest high school field assembled, the Smith bracket has lived up to the billing more in how wide-open it's been than in the way anyone may have envisioned the actual play on the court. Speed still kills in this competition, but size matters more than it has in years, and all of the final four teams have it. Those that have both -- and that's mainly Riverdale Baptist (Upper Marlboro, Md.) -- may be sitting in the catbird seat.
"If I'm going into a gunfight," said Crusaders coach Diane Richardson, whose team is No. 3 in the Powerade FAB 50, "I want to have a couple weapons with me."
Richardson will be toting thunder and lightning into her team's semifinal matchup on Wednesday with unranked Windward (Los Angeles), a proud member of what its 6-foot-7 post Imani Stafford terms "Upset Nation," a phenomenon that has gripped the TOC's top two divisions.
Riverdale punched in with a convincing 56-46 victory over No. 10 Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.), the two-time defending national champion whose main deficiencies turned out to be the lack of the size its opponent had in abundance and the health of its star, Jordan Adams. The 6-foot-1 point guard tried to gut her way through a second day of pain caused by a strained posterior cruciate ligament in her right knee. Obviously hobbled for most of the game, Adams was sent to check in as her Monarchs were mounting a furious fourth-quarter rally, but her family shelved her for the rest of the game.
Adams' presence might have made for a more gripping tale, but it's hard to say Riverdale would have been denied. The Crusaders play a tough, aggressive style and on Tuesday were led by 6-3 senior post Brittany Jenkins-Murray, who had 12 points, and 6-foot wing Jonquel Jones, who was spectacular with 12 points, 16 rebounds and high-style passing from all over the floor. Riverdale has six other players who are 5-10 or taller.
The Crusaders made things difficult with their length and speed, but overall size made a difference for them and the other three semifinalists in the way it choked off much of the operating space that opponents had at the offensive end.
Finally recovered from a broken pelvis bone, Stafford scored 24 points but more importantly anchored a Windward defense that held No. 29 Marion County (Lebanon, Ky.) to just 12 second-half points en route to its 53-37 victory.
Likewise, although the nation's No. 1 senior prospect, Breanna Stewart, scored 33 points, it was her length and wingspan that bedeviled No. 22 Dr. Phillips (Orlando, Fla.) during a 48-28 victory for No. 24 Cicero-North Syracuse (Cicero, N.Y.). Unable to get anywhere near the basket, Dr. Phillips took shots it wasn't accustomed to taking and missed most of them, hitting a frosty 15 percent from the floor and scoring six points in the second quarter and just three in the fourth.
"We've never played against anyone like her," Dr. Phillips coach Anthony Jones said of the 6-3, Connecticut-bound Stewart. "She's incredible. Defensively, she took away everything with her presence on the court."
Stewart will have a lot more to take away from her team's semifinal opponent, St. Mary's (Phoenix), the tournament's highest-ranked team at No. 2 in the FAB 50. The Knights have balance and execute well at both ends, plus they have an elite inside player in 6-3 Cortnee Walton, who is signed with Louisville. But their secret weapon could be the one they trotted out during their 71-48 victory over No. 13 Good Counsel (Olney, Md.).
In Chantel Osahor, who scored 14 points against Good Counsel, the Knights have a player with a unique skill set for her size, at 6-1, and mass. She is deceptively quick, can put the ball on the floor, score with her back to the basket, hit the 3 as she did early in the third quarter, and be, as teammate Courtney Ekmark put it, "the best passer in the world." Osahor's game has blossomed during the past year as she has focused on her conditioning and footwork.
Stafford's improved well-being is at the center of Windward's surge. She played with pain in her right hip for most of last season, but most thought the culprit was a strained hip flexor. An examination after she made the USA Basketball U19 team this past summer revealed a pelvis fracture. When the fracture did not heal during a prescribed two-week period, more tests revealed a benign tumor as the cause of the break.
It was feared that the tumor would have to be removed surgically and that Stafford would miss her senior season at Windward. However, the tumor resolved itself when the fracture was cemented.
Completely healthy for the first time in her high school career, Stafford says she enthusiastically joins a supersized TOC final four that, quite literally, is head and shoulders above the rest.
"It means a lot of grind-it-out games," said Stafford, the No. 10 prospect in 2012 who is headed to Texas.
Don't look now, but the ballroom has been invaded by the slam dancers. If you're out to win this Tournament of Champions, you'd better be big and able to take it and dish it out -- beasts and not necessarily the beauties.
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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A graduate of Seattle University and Columbia University, he formerly coached girls' club basketball, was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, has had his photography displayed at the Smithsonian Institute, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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