A few years ago, USA Today named Marshall County High School's gym one of the best environments in the nation to watch high school hoops. They were dead on the money.
On Saturday, the final day of the Hoop Fest, the tournament invited a handful of the nation's elite teams and players and asked them to participate. In almost a giving back sort of way, the very best players performed to their capabilities and beyond. It was almost a show of respect and appreciation for the atmosphere, the fans and the event, each of which turned out to be among the very best you'll see on the circuit.
December high school events, especially the post Christmas ones, are usually the most community centered and create the top atmospheres. When the people in the stands get into it, the players respond.
Take Michael Beasley for instance. He was the talk of the tournament all weekend long after he jumped over two locals to win the slam dunk contest. He might reside in Virginia but there's a special place for him in Benton anytime he wants to come back. They loved him. In fact, they loved him so much, TimePiecePhotography.com was in the process of making a mint by selling photos of the dunk of the year!
On Saturday afternoon, the North Carolina Tar Heels knocked off the state's favorite sons from Lexington. Now, one would think the last place Roy Williams should be in would be an enclosed arena with 5,000 residents of the state. So, when Williams arrived to watch Brandan Wright, his star recruit out of Brentwood (Tenn.) Academy, a requisite chorus of boos rang out but mixed in was a hint of respect and a twinge of appreciation for the coaching celebrity. Sure, he crossed over into enemy territory, but remember, these are basketball fans in Marshall County.
Speaking of Wright, he was one of the prime time stars of the event. In a career that spans state championships and all-american camps, he's strung together a signature performance or two. His game against South Laurel was one for his personal highlight reel. After a sluggish beginning, Wright willed himself to the near triple-double with 26 points, 11 boards and 9 blocks.
Another native Tennessean, Thaddeus Young, closed the event by dropping 29 points on Peoria Richwoods. His game didn't end until right around midnight but folks stayed to see the special 6-foot-8 talent. He didn't disappoint.
Neither did Oak Hill Academy. Down in Benton, they love them some Oak Hill. When hundreds of kids crowd the baseline and sidelines with camera phones taking stills of the Warriors in warm ups, you can't help but feel the love. Beasley felt the love for the second time in as many days when he drilled a free throw with 1.3 seconds left to knock off Canton (Ohio) McKinley.
For Oak Hill, which was playing without suspended star guard Tywon Lawson, McKinley was the second close game of the event. The night before, Oak Hill survived a late run from Chicago Simeon and its star, point guard Derrick Rose, before eventually hanging on the final quarter.
How important was the game to Rose? Well, he got pretty emotional about the loss in the lockeroom and when he was standing in a tunnel watching Saturday's action, was still visibly upset about the loss and clearly perturbed his team couldn't seal the deal. Most kids would have been quite pleased with 20 points, 7 boards and 5 dimes in a big time game, but not Rose. The win would have meant that much to him.
Part of the reason why Rose's crew couldn't seal the deal in the opener was the play of Oak Hill guard Nolan Smith, The son of the late Derek Smith, a former Louisville star; Nolan Smith admirably stepped up and took over the leadership position of the team. In back-to-back games, Smith delivered the goods.
Jon Scheyer, a 6-foot-5 guard, delivered the highlight performance of the weekend. Scheyer's historic run to the state title last year in Illinois is the stuff of legends. His game against Memphis Ridgeway, another chapter in a storied career.
Scheyer's recruitment was well documented. He picked Duke while attending the same high school current Blue Devils assistant Chris Collins used to drop 3-balls at. He's coached by Dave Weber, the brother of the Illini coach and his father played college sports with Cal's Ben Braun. To say a few people have connections to him would be an understatement.
After Scheyer's game at the Hoop Fest, the good people of Benton are ready to adopt him too. Scheyer's long been a tough guy to pin down as a prospect. Sure, he could shoot and has a great feel for the game. Now that's won big time, you know he's an intangibles guy. Still, he's always been one of those good players people couldn't quite project in terms of his impact in college.
Well, count us as subscribers to the Red Auerbach Theory. In his latest book, "Let Me Tell You A Story," Auerbach offers up a simplistic approach to evaluating players. "If a guy is good in games, he's a good player. If a guy works hard in practice, then he's going to work hard in practice." Simple enough and applicable with Scheyer who has a strong reputation for putting in the time and then delivering on the big stages.
For the good people of Benton, he flat out put on a clinic. From big free throws to coming off screens or hitting back door cutters, Scheyer displayed an advanced knowledge of the game combined with the ability to execute, lead and excel. When the lights went on, Scheyer was cast in the role of star and he delivered a masterful performance.
When it was all over, the folks in Benton were left with no other choice but to stand up and applaud because after all, in Benton, they're in the hospitality business!
Photos courtesy of TimePiecePhotography.com