When Bullis Coach Bruce Kelley booked his team’s trip to Miami for last weekend’s Junior Orange Bowl, he made a promise to his team that no matter what happened in the holiday tournament, the Bulldogs’ final day in South Beach would be a “fun day.”
After knocking off defending tournament champ Hialeah and nationally ranked West Charlotte to win the title, the Bulldogs had no trouble enjoying their day at the beach on Sunday.
The Bulldogs’ 57-55 overtime win in the championship against the previously undefeated Lions proved most satisfying. Down three with three seconds remaining in regulation, Anthony Thompson broke through a swarm of defenders and passed upcourt to Jamaal Greenwood, who drained a three-pointer – his lone basket of the game – to force overtime.
In the extra period, with Bullis down two and 30 seconds remaining, Thompson scored off a steal to tie the game at 55. The senior guard then forced a turnover on the ensuing possession, leading to Andre Walker’s decisive jump hook with five seconds remaining.
“It was a really exciting win,” said Thompson, who was named the tournament’s most valuable player after recording 16 points and four steals. “Guys made so many big plays and with teams keying in on me, I’m learning how to play off the ball and set up things for my teammates.”
Just as critical was Walker’s defense on highly touted Lions center Kennedy Meeks. The North Carolina recruit scored 23 points, but Walker’s pressure in the high post prevented Meeks from using his passing ability to set up teammates, none of whom scored more than eight points.
“He’s crafty, so I just tried to out-play him on defense and make him get the ball where he didn’t want it,” said Walker, who had nine points and 13 rebounds.
The victory marked a high note for Bullis (9-4), which has had its share of ups and downs in the first half of the season, including a 37-point loss to Gonzaga and an upset at the hands of The Heights.
“We had a lot of guys stepping into new roles and a tough schedule that taught us a lesson about working hard and playing hard every night,” Kelley said. “You remember and celebrate these high moments but we’ve also seen what can happen when we don’t properly prepare and that’s not lost on us, either.”
Success proved hard to come by for O’Connell last season. The Knights, with just one senior and a starting lineup featuring three sophomores and a freshman, lost seven games by seven points or less en route to a 14-17 campaign – their first losing record in 13 years. But through it all, Coach Joe Wootten knew it was part of the process.
Now, with the Knights sitting at 11-0 entering Monday’s Beach Ball Classic championship in Myrtle Beach, S.C., last year’s growth seems well worth the pain.
“We’re playing with a lot of poise and maturity and I attribute that to us bringing back four of our five starters with Junior [Etou] being the missing piece,” Wootten said on the eve of the Knights’ title game against nationally ranked Whitney Young. “We knew we were going to take our lumps, and now they know what it takes to be successful.”
Much of this success has stemmed from the inside-outside play of Melo Trimble and Etou. Trimble, a Maryland commit who has hit at least one three-pointer in every game, matched his season average with 20 points in a semifinal win against Hudson Catholic (N.J.). In the prior round, Etou notched his seventh double-double with 12 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks in a victory over Rufus King (Wisc.).
Sophomore Leroy Butts has also provided a welcome complement of late, reaching double-digit points in four of the Knights’ last five games .
“The number one thing is we’ve gotten better every single practice, every single game since the beginning of the season,” Wootten said. “We’re also competitive where our guys have a lot of fight in them. Teams have made runs at us but we’ve always responded well and that’s also helped us grow consistently.”