Through three games of the Slam N’ Jam Elite 8x2 Tournament, the Oakland Soldiers had blown past overmatched opponents with a whole lot of flashy plays and very little effort. But when it came down to the championship game, it was good old-fashioned muscle that carried them past a halftime deficit to the title.
Facing a Next Level team that very few people expected to make it to the final, the Soldiers found themselves in real trouble on Wednesday evening for the first time this week. Despite pulling off some spectacular plays in the first half, they found themselves trailing 38-32 at the intermission. The Next Level players, fresh off of upset wins over EBO and the Michigan Hurricanes, weren’t psyched out by the Soldiers’ dunks and alley-oops; they just went back down and scored some baskets of their own. Their backcourt trio of Brandon Worthy, Joe Calderon and Steve Cotton were able to penetrate the Oakland defense for some easy baskets, and proved a tough matchup for the favored host team.
With the highlight reel not getting them anywhere, the Soldiers turned to Leon Powe and John Winston to get some easy points inside to regain the lead early in the second half.
Powe started the half with a nice move that resulted in an easy dunk for the 6-foot-7 junior. He then tipped in a LeBron James miss to pull his team within two points. A couple of minutes later, he captured the lead for his squad with a score that was pure muscle, overpowering two Next Level defenders for a layup.
“I knew I had to pull us through, even though I was a little tired,” Powe said. “But we had to win this one. You have to win your home tournament.”
Then Winston got into the act. The Salesian High star got a putback on a DeMarcus Nelson miss, then made a three-point play the hard way, driving to the basket for a bucket and foul. He scored again off of penetration a minute later, and the Soldiers had a 48-43 lead that they would never relinquish.
Winston is one of the players that sometimes falls into the background playing with stars like Powe, James and Marquis Kately, but he proved that he can play with the best of them.
“We’ve got 10 of the best ballplayers in the country, and sometimes it’s a little hard to find the best five in any game,” Soldiers coach Mark Olivier said. “But we win with scoring by committee and by playing tough defense.”
Next Level’s Marcus Martinez tried to rally his team with a 3-pointer, but John Sharper answered with two bombs of his own to widen the Oakland lead to 57-50. All that was left was a few highlight plays by the Soldiers down the stretch, and the hosts walked away with the trophy.
Powe led all scorers with 24 points, after only scoring 14 in the semi-final victory against the LA Paladins earlier on Wednesday. James had a fairly quiet 18 in the final, but showed why many consider him to be the best prep player in the country with some spectacular passes and deft ballhandling. Jayson Obazuaye led Next Level with 22 points.
The Soldiers’ semi-final was a tough game early, but turned into a blowout in the second half, as James, Powe and Kately put on another show with alley-oops and breakaway dunks. Paladin point guard Deric Clark showed a nice game, breaking off a couple of sweet crossovers and leading his team with 17 points, and Doug Thomas showed a lot of heart despite a lack of size against the Soldier big men, but the Los Angeles team was clearly overmatched.
In the other semi-final, Next Level prevented the matchup the Soldiers really wanted with the Hurricanes when Cotton tied the score with a 3-pointer with two seconds left to force overtime. Five different Next Level players scored in overtime, and six points by star point guard Anthony Roberson couldn’t carry the Hurricanes to the final.
NOTES: Kately’s top four college choices are Cal, Arizona, North Carolina and UCLA, but he said he’s “still open to hearing from other schools.” The Riordan (San Francisco) wingman has attracted a lot of attention this summer after missing most of the last high school season... St. Mary’s (Berkeley) teammates Sharper and DeShawn Freeman have benefited from increased exposure this summer with the Soldiers, and each has several schools after him. Freeman listed his top schools as UTEP, Mississippi State, Pepperdina and UC Santa Barbara, while Sharper is considering Portland, Santa Clara, Dartmouth and Yale.