SOUTH JAMAICA, NY - When the New Jersey Playaz Club (Seniors) and the Ben Gordon All-Stars (Mount Vernon High School) hit the floor for a much-anticipated iS8/Nike Fall Tip-Off Classic semifinal matchup, those in attendance knew that, no matter the outcome, it was going to be a highly competitive, high-powered game.
The numerous spectators in attendance gave the literal meaning of wall-to-wall coverage, as they jammed the bleachers and thickly lined the walls of the Intermediate School 8 gymnasium. The cross-border rivals did not disappoint, putting on an action-packed 32 minutes.
After being at each other's throats for the majority of the contest, Playaz Club (Seniors) and Ben Gordon began to see a gulf form between them at about the two-minute mark of the fourth quarter. The Playaz did eventually come away with the victory, 75-66, but not without being battle-tested by the dynamic Mount Vernon, N.Y. squad.
"It was pretty tough because they're a well-organized high school team, a very good high school team," said N.J. Playaz coach Mark Jarrell. "You don't really play against a lot of teams with structure like that so those kids are really organized and pretty much into what they want to do. They never change their game plan."
The Playaz Club (Seniors) and Ben Gordon All-Stars each shared some early leads in the first quarter, always staying within a possession of one another. The apparent size advantage that Playaz held over Ben Gordon became glaringly evident in the warm-up phase as Ben Gordon tried creative ways to get to the rack without being blocked or deflected by Playaz' Tony Parker (14 points) or UCLA-commit Kyle Anderson (12 points).
Ben Gordon used its signature controlled speed to out-hustle the competition, getting up and down the court faster than its New Jersey opponent. The New York team was led by the tough backcourt of point guard Josh Doughty (team-high 16 points) and two-guard Isaiah Cousins (15 points). In fact, it was a set play for Doughty to drive baseline for a lay-up with 15 seconds left that gave Ben Gordon a 16-14 advantage by the close of the first quarter.
Anderson tied the game at 16 in the opening seconds of the second phase. And, on the Playaz' next possession, teammate Chris Jones (eight points) completed the conventional three-point play to lift the New Jersey squad by three points 19-16. Ben Gordon hit back with some great defense and a transition bucket to bring the game within one point.
However, it would be a basket by Anderson and a dramatic finger-roll by Playaz' St. John's-commit Darrick Wood (game-high 18 points) that would increase the New Jersey advantage to five points, 23-18. The physicality of the game paved the way for Ben Gordon's Jerrell Marshall (four points) to get fouled and fall to the ground hard, allowing teammate Doughty to cash in on both free throw opportunities for him.
Only up by three points, Playaz' Jones pushed the lead back up to five points, 25-20, on a step through to the basket. But Ben Gordon answered with back-to-back buckets - the last a putback by Cousins with 4:10 left in the second - that brought the New York team within one point, 25-24. The closeness in margin prompted Playaz to go on a mini 6-2 run, highlighted by a two-handed, reverse dunk by Wood, that resulted in a five-point cushion for the New Jersey squad, 31-26.
Although a basket off the glass by Doughty cut the Ben Gordon deficit to three points, 31-28, the half would close with a six-point, Playaz Club advantage, 34-28.
In the third quarter, Ben Gordon All-Stars continued to do a good job on Parker by frustrating him with about three sets of quick, defensive hands, forcing him to turn the ball over quite a few times. At about the 6:37 mark, on a bucket by Randy Stephens (12 points), the New York squad had regained an advantage for the first time since the first quarter, 35-34.
"He had early jitters and got a good feel of what iS8 is about," said Jarrell of Parker, "so I think [Sunday] he'll do a lot better."
That Ben Gordon lead would extend to three points, 37-34, before the Playaz turned it into a two-point, New Jersey lead, 39-37. Ben Gordon tied the contest at 39 on a basket by Marshall, but Playaz' Parker scored on the interior to give his team a two-point lift, 41-39.
At about the three-minute mark of the third period, Playaz took a three-point lead. That three-point differential would remain the margin separating New Jersey from New York as the quarter closed 50-47.
The fourth and final phase saw more of the same as the Playaz Club advantage was extended to five points a few times early in the period - the last time being when a strong dunk by Wood elevated Playaz to a 54-49 lead. Ben Gordon's Doughty would nail a 3-pointer to come within two points, 54-52, but Playaz' Jones would answer with a Slam-a-da-month-worthy, power dunk of his own that sent New Jersey and New York fans to their feet to get a closer look.
Playaz Club would again acquire a five-point lead - this time, it was chopped by a two-of-two performance from Ben Gordon All-Stars' Cousins. Another basket by Cousins would bring his squad within one point, 59-58, as late as the 3:25 mark of the fourth quarter.
Playaz would keep Ben Gordon All-Stars only a short distance away until the 2:30 mark. In the final two minutes, Wood's speed and needed spark on the floor, coupled with the Playaz' height advantage, established a momentum that was so favorable to New Jersey that it completely shut out the New York team. Ben Gordon watched its offensive and defensive effectiveness dwindle.
"His energy brings something to the table," said Jarrell of Wood. "So, as long as he's staying lively, I'm good. He missed some shots he normally makes, so [Sunday] we'll try to make that better."
Playaz would use this shift to go on a 8-0 run that left them ahead 71-60 with 1:17 remaining in the game. Cousins attempted to get the ball rolling for Ben Gordon again with a few jumpshots, but the New York team could not find the Playaz' off switch in time to stage a comeback.