Trailing by 15 points with just eight minutes of play remaining in the ESPN National High School Invitational (NHSI) championship game against Montverde Academy, Findlay Prep senior power forward Brandon Ashley (Arizona) remained poised.
“As a basketball player, you never think that thought [that you won’t come back],” Ashley said. “I wasn’t going to let my teammates lose and my teammates weren’t going to let me lose.”
That’s exactly what the all-tournament selection did as his 15-point fourth quarter effort led Findlay Prep (Nevada) back to send the title game into overtime where they would eventually defeat Montverde Academy (Florida), 86-83. Ashley finished the contest with a game-high 31 points on 9-of-12 shooting from the field and 13-of-14 shooting from the charity stripe.
“He put the cape on, Brandon Ashley was the Brandon Ashley he’s supposed to be,” said Findlay Prep head coach Michael Peck. “He’s capable of that.”
Findlay Prep junior point guard Nigel Williams-Goss added 17 points and four rebounds and hit the game-winning floater with less than 20 seconds remaining in overtime. He also defended Montverde Academy junior point guard Kasey Hill (Florida), who recorded 23 points and six assists, on the last possession of regulation and stopped him from scoring.
“When [the game clock] got to four [seconds], I knew he was going to try to pull up because usually when you drive to the basket you go at 11 or 10 [seconds],” Williams-Goss said. “When I found that out, I knew I had to be ready for when he was going to pull up so the closer he got to the arc, the better the chance he was going to pull up so I kind of just made a guess and it turned out right.”
Findlay Prep completed the monumental comeback by outscoring Montverde Academy 37-22 in the fourth quarter, just two points less than what they scored in the previous three quarters. Montverde was plagued by turnovers and the stifling Findlay defense gave Ashley the opportunity to go off in the final eight minutes of the game.
“It’s a frustrating loss because we completely outplayed them for three and a half quarters,” said Montverde head coach Kevin Boyle. “You try not to be too cautious, you don’t want to shoot too quick because you’re up 15, 16 points but you don’t want to play that aggressively. We had several turnovers, we played a little tight and guys wait and the trap is two feet away. It’s frustrating.”
In addition to having to play three games in three days, Findlay Prep faced additional challenges. Ashley and tournament MVP Anthony Bennett were both McDonald’s All-Americans so they had less than a 24 hour break between the week of McDonald’s events and the start of the NHSI.
“Going to [the] McDonald’s [All-American game] is a huge honor. Coming here afterwards, you’re exhausted and you kind of just want to get it over with and get back home,” Ashley said, “but you really got to stick it through and fight through it and we did that. I’m really proud of my team.”
Bennett didn’t allow fatigue to both him either as he recorded 19 points and a game-high nine rebounds. His 9-of-11 from the free throw line shows why Findlay Prep was able to pull out the victory since they shot 36-41 (88%) from the charity stripe including 24-27 (89%) in the second half.
However, despite the losing effort, Hill, an all-tournament selection, turned in an excellent performance and was one of the best players in the whole NHSI.
“I think Kasey solidified himself in this tournament [as] roughly one of the ten best kids in his class nationally,” Boyle said. “He was the best player in the tournament. We just couldn’t get the ball to him enough and they were face-guarding him and we were trying to flash a guy up the side and take off but those guys weren’t getting open.”
“Kasey is just a terrific, tremendous player,” Peck added, “and his mindset as a true point, he sees things that are two to three steps ahead, he’s got an unbelievable feel and motor.”
One of the things that remains unsettled after the NHSI is the debate over who should be considered the best team in high school basketball — the NHSI champs and one-loss Findlay Prep squad or a 44-0 team in Oak Hill, who didn’t take part in the NHSI.
“Our whole mindset coming into the tournament was to focus on us, we’ve got potentially three games left and we just want to focus on these three games,” Williams-Goss said. “It’s a huge honor winning the NHSI and it puts us in the conversation. Anyone can debate, those kids did what they had to do and we felt we did what he had to do so I think that put us right there in the conversation.”
Coach Peck is a little more wishful that Oak Hill would have participated.
“The best way I could describe it is if Alabama wouldn’t have had another shot at LSU [in the 2012 college football national championship game],” coach Peck said. “How [Alabama head coach] Nick Saban would have felt, that’s probably how I feel right now.”
Even though some are disappointed that they didn’t get to play Oak Hill in the NHSI, Findlay is still happy with their season and looks to continue their success on to next year.
“Now we’re back on track, this is what the program is accustomed to and this is what we set the mark at every year, this is the expectation for us,” coach Peck said. “This is what each group needs to strive for and you can put their name next to the previous groups [because] they set the bar high.”