As players from Findlay Prep and Montrose Christian jogged toward the locker room at halftime of Thursday’s ESPN National High School Invitational quarterfinals, a smiling Ishmail Wainright quickly stopped and turned toward his Mustangs teammates. Using the same fingers that had just floated a halfcourt buzzer-beater through the net, Wainright formed two pistols and blew on them, seemingly fanning the hot hand that would lead the Mustangs to the brink of knocking off national No. 1 Findlay Prep.
Ultimately though, foul trouble and turnovers cooled the Mustangs’ upset bid, allowing the undefeated Pilots to escape with a 57-53 victory at Georgetown Prep in the teams’ second meeting of the season.
Saving his best performance for what would be his final high school game, Wainright scored a season-high 21 points to help Montrose Christian build an eight-point lead with six minutes remaining. But foul trouble saddled the Baylor recruit, allowing Pilots guard Nigel Williams-Goss to take over and score 13 of his game-high 26 points in the fourth quarter.
“Ish was absolutely great, playing hard off ball screens, penetration and doing things where he could make us better,” Mustangs Coach Stu Vetter said. “Williams-Goss is a very smart player and after Ish fouled out, they just made a few more plays than we did.”
Initially, it was senior forward Cole Harrison who sparked the Mustangs, scoring nine first-quarter points inside to build a 13-6 advantage. But thanks to Montrose Christian’s 14 first-half turnovers, the Pilots (35-0) rallied back until Wainright’s buzzer-beating runner from behind halfcourt gave the Mustangs a 25-24 halftime lead.
The wide-bodied senior continued to assert himself in the second half, scoring 12 points on several mid-range jumpers and post moves while finding teammates from his point forward position.
“That [halfcourt shot] gave us momentum in the second half,” Wainright said. “My size will affect any defensive player because I’m stronger than most 6-8 guys. I feel like I can post anybody down and get my shot off.”
Wainwright’s confidence and Montrose Christian’s strong performance on the glass against the bigger Pilots helped the Mustangs (19-5) build a 44-36 lead midway through the fourth period. But soon after, the 6-foot-6 Wainright picked up his fourth foul, further limiting a Montrose Christian squad that had seen capable scorer Therence Mayimba go down earlier with cramps.
Williams-Goss, a Washington recruit, scored seven points to spark a 13-2 run that gave Findlay Prep a 49-46 lead. Wainright scored while being fouled to trim the deficit to one, but after missing the free throw, he picked up his fifth foul on the ensuing play with 57 seconds left.
From there, the Pilots, who shot 30 free throws, drained six shots from the foul line to seal the win and advance to Friday’s semifinal against St. Benedict’s Prep (N.J.).