Eight teams in the National Bracket. Eight teams in the Texas Bracket. And the eight national entries are flat-out Nike's finest. If you're really, really good, and if you wear the Swoosh, you come here – and in terms of degree of difficulty, the ANI has no peer.
"Every game is a battle," said New York (NY) Rice coach Mo Hicks, a veritable Mr. Smiley after guiding his team to a 2-1 record and a third-place finish for the second straight year. "At most tournaments, you'll get a game off.
"They'll match you up with, like, a junior high school team, and you'll win by 30. But there's no warmup game here. You have to come out and play every single game. Win or lose, it's going to be a war."
Just ask Kevin Boyle.
The veteran coach of Elizabeth (NJ) St. Patrick saw his typically reliable guards commit a series of turnovers that helped Mouth of Wilson (VA) Oak Hill Academy overcome a nine-point fourth-quarter deficit to win Monday night's championship game 62-59.
Boyle's Celtics got balanced scoring. Villanova-bound PG Michael Nardi led the way with 14 points. Touted freshman PF Derrick Caracter had 13 and low-major gunner SG Jason Patterson and PF Assad Shaakir added 10 apiece.
Those kinds of contributions? That was normal for St. Pat's. The costly case of late-game butterfingers was not.
"I didn't think we could press them like that," Oak Hill coach Steve Smith said. "They've got good guards. But I think they panicked a little bit, and we took over the game in the last four minutes."
There was some question as to the proper score after the third quarter – the official scorekeeper at the Campbell Center added two points to Oak Hill's tally of 41 at the break – and later film review showed that Boyle had every right to be angry.
But the fact of the matter was this: The Celtics had this game all but won – two bogus points or not – and literally fumbled it away down the stretch.
"We got rattled," Boyle admitted afterwards. "We didn't handle their pressure well. Their guards were quick and they got in our face and got steals. We turned it over and gave them too many layups. That's where we lost the game."
Smith's Warriors, meanwhile, continue their comeback crusade in the wake of their embarrassing loss on national TV to LeBron and Akron (OH) St. Vincent-St. Mary Dec. 12 in Cleveland.
"We've been fighting back for the last two and a half weeks, ever since we got our tails pounded in Cleveland," Smith said. "This speaks volumes for our guys and their character."
And for the kind of competition at the ANI.
Class of 2003 Checklist
Shagari Alleyne. He was dominant during stretches here. He had 20 points in Rice's first game, and he was super against Rainier Beach in Monday's third-place game, going for 21 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks. He had dunks on three straight trips in a key fourth-quarter spurt. Here at the ANI, the 7-3 Rutgers-bound C caught the ball in the post, anchored the Raiders' interior defense and generally was the tourney's top individual presence. Don't look now, but the big kid's gotten good.
Ndi Ebi. His team didn't do so hot (Westbury Christian finished 1-2), and he didn't feel so good (he battled a head cold throughout the weekend), but heck if Ndi Ebi didn't just continue to put up numbers. The 6-9 Arizona signee had a ho-hum 31 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks Monday in Westbury's win over Memphis BTW in the seventh-place game – and he made a couple trips to a courtside trash can during stoppages of play to hawk up phlegm balls. Without getting too graphic, that was pretty darn, um, gutsy.
Class of 2004 Checklist
Daniel Gibson. Speaking of gutsy, Daniel Gibson played three games at the ANI with some bum ribs, a bruised backside and a variety of other nicks and bumps – and he still managed to perform well for Houston (TX) Jones. More importantly, though, Jones won the Texas championship. Don't think that would've happened – or even come close to happening – without Dan G. The 6-2 PG/SG put on an efficiency show in Monday night's title game versus Port Arthur Memorial: 17 points on 5-for-8 shooting from the floor. He did what his body would allow – and just enough to lead his team to the win.
Class of 2005 Checklist
Chris Pinkalla. The younger brother of University of Houston SG signee Parker Pinkalla played a solid point for Greg Glenn's Westbury squad. The skinny 6-2 sophomore had 14 points, five rebounds and two assists against BTW, but he showed he can do what his older brother is known for (knocking down the three) while also serving as a reliable ball handler and lead guard. No jumping of the gun here, but his skills and height merit monitoring as a name on the PG lists in the coming months and years.
Class of 2006 Checklist
Derrick Caracter. There were lots of key guys in the back-and-forth Oak Hill-St. Pat's final. UConn-bound PG Marcus Williams had 16 points and seven assists (and only one turnover) for the Warriors. J.R. Reynolds hit some big threes, Ivan Harris was good, and so was Mike Nardi. But there was exactly one guy on that floor who couldn't be checked – not by anyone, not at any time – and it was the 14-year-old. It's been said before, obviously, but why not ring in 2003 by saying it again? For a freakin' freshman – no, for a high school basketball player of any age – Caracter's balance, feel and touch are remarkable in a gawking, head-shaking sort of way.
Around the ANI
Kevin Boyle wore the same exact outfit for all three games: navy slacks, powder blue button-down, cream sweater vest with blue trim, brown loafers. He said late Monday night in the hospitality room – or was it early Tuesday morning? – that he wore it the first night and won and simply decided to stick with it. What he didn't say, however, was whether or not he managed to find a washing machine somewhere in tourney headquarters at the Houston Wyndham. …
The quote of the tourney came from Steve Smith during the post-championship presser: "This was the kind of game that gives coaches gray hairs. It takes a lot to win these kinds of games, and now I'm going to have to go back to the hotel and get some Just For Men."
More Around the ANI
BTW junior PG sparkplug Andre Allen – a Memphis lean? – had 29 points, nine rebounds, seven steals and five assists in an understated but brilliant performance Monday against Westbury. … Heritage Christian's Elijah Miller had his most productive game of the tournament on Monday, with 11 points, six rebounds and a block. Generally speaking, though, the 6-10 Houston-bound C was a non-entity at the ANI. …
Jason Horton didn't have the greatest of tournaments, either: The Cedar Hill junior PG had 11 turnovers in Saturday's game and 12 points, four assists and six turnovers Monday versus Heritage. Cedar Hill looked out of sync throughout the event, and Horton, for whatever reason, looked a step or two slow.