CHANDLER, Ariz. -- Rarely in your wildest imagination would you conjure up a team that features an emerging star who arrived in the U.S. three years ago to earn a basketball-financed college education, and then pit it against another whose core watched, wide-eyed, as Tina Charles outdueled Ashley and Courtney Paris during the very same game in which they'd play years later.
But this is the season of making dreams come true, after all, and thus the 2011 Nike Tournament of Champions will feature Riverdale Baptist (Upper Marlboro, Md.) and senior Jonquel Jones against St. Mary's (Phoenix) and its long-united nucleus in Thursday's title game of the Joe Smith Invitational Division that carries the event's final-day East-West flavor to an ultimate conclusion.
Competitions like this frequently are won by teams with the kind of star power that, like a gathering storm, Jones has been building for Riverdale Baptist during this TOC. Her 26-point, 12-rebound outing during the Crusaders' 70-61 victory over Windward (Los Angeles) in the Smith semifinals on Wednesday was a stunning performance exceeded only by her 12-point, 16-board feat against Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) the previous day.
Twice the Clemson-bound wing put Riverdale on her back at critical junctures. First Jones fired in three 3-pointers in the second quarter, answering a trio of 3s from Windward's Courtney Jaco during the first period. Then, after Windward led the entire game, she seized the moment, as well as the momentum, with seven points and control of the glass during a 16-2 Riverdale run from late in the third quarter to early in the fourth that turned the game for good.
Foul trouble by post Imani Stafford, a groin injury to Jaco and a bone contusion on the right foot of Jordin Canada all sabotaged Windward's effort, but none as much as Jones' virtuosity. Afterward, Windward coach Steve Smith called the Riverdale Baptist star "a female Kevin Durant," referencing the NBA's youngest scoring champion.
It's been quite a journey for Jones. Two high school seasons ago, she was fresh from the Bahamas, physically gifted and brimming with undeveloped basketball talent.
Until it turned off the lights on Southern California's TOC hopes this year, Riverdale Baptist likewise had been a team with a depth of talent that played a physically aggressive style, but lacked the rudder often provided by a singular sensation Jones has become. After two previous trips to the TOC had provided crushing humility, the Crusaders, ranked No. 3 in the POWERADE FAB 50, seemed to have turned a corner with Jones providing a calming sense of purpose.
"I'm ready for the responsibility," Jones said. "Coach [Diane Richardson] talked to me about it before the season, so I am stepping into a role that was already in place for me."
St. Mary's, ranked No. 2 nationally, is a similarly primed squad that has been chasing its dream of a TOC championship since attending the tournament in its own backyard for the first time seven years ago.
"I remember the kids being starstruck and saying they wanted to play in a game like that some day," Knights coach Curtis Ekmark said.
They made it happen by surviving a superstar assault by Breanna Stewart, who put up 33 points for the second straight game, in a 63-55 victory over No. 24 Cicero-North Syracuse (Cicero, N.Y.). Ekmark called Stewart the "Brittney Griner of high school basketball."
The Knights came in with a plan to slow Stewart by containing her to the left side of the court, using a zoned defender to double team and force her to pass the ball to teammates who would be left to make plays. Offensively, since Stewart's length shut down so much of the real estate extending from the basket, the Knights needed to shoot the ball well from distance and generate points with their defense.
St. Mary's performed the latter with aplomb. The Knights landed nine 3-pointers during the first three quarters, staking themselves to a 22-point lead, before Stewart and the Northstars staged a furious comeback, forcing St. Mary's to stave them off from the free throw line.
That Riverdale Baptist presents such a different set of challenges is not a daunting prospect for the Knights. As a club team, the nucleus of St. Mary's has spent much of the past seven years barnstorming the country, obtaining the experience, and more importantly, the chameleonic nature that a team needs to advance through a national tournament offering four straight days of variety. The semifinal may have been a matter of finesse and adaptation, for example, but the championship brings more of a street fight and the need for toughness.
"Our kids are battle-tested," Ekmark said. "They don't back down from anything. They are going to roll up their sleeves and get after it."
The past helped bring opportunity, in other words. Time to unwrap the present. That kind of thing is in the air this time of year, after all.
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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.