Huntington, WV -- Since the advent of weekly boys high school basketball rankings in 1982, no team from West Virginia has ever finished in the national top 25. In fact, the only team from the Mountain State to ever finish nationally-ranked occurred last season, when the Huntington Highlanders finished No. 48 in the Student Sports FAB 50 with a 25-2 record and its second consecutive Class AAA state title in tow.
This season, with most of its cast of players returning plus the addition of EA SPORTS All-American O.J. Mayo, there is no question the Highlanders will finish with the highest-ever ranking for a West Virginia team provided they win a third consecutive state title. The question everybody wants to know is, just how good of a team is Huntington and how do they stack up against national-caliber competition?
A capacity crowd of over 9,000 at Huntington's Cam Henderson Center plus a national television audience got their answer as the Highlanders overcame a sluggish start to record a 74-62 win over perennial FAB 50 contender DeMatha (Hyattsville, MD).
After beating its first nine opponents by an average of 32 points, it wasn't surprising to see Huntington (10-0) fall behind early against the Stags considering the jump up in competition for the Highlanders. DeMatha (9-2) had already faced many tough opponents earlier this season, including preseason No. 5 St. Patrick (Elizabeth, NJ), a team they beat 57-49 in the National Division title game at the Academy National Invitational in Houston. The Stags took an early 12-5 lead as Huntington took some ill-advised shots and just didn't seem comfortable on the floor. After one period of play, DeMatha held a 17-11 lead as Huntington started the game making only one of its first seven free throws.
Although they trailed after one period of play, its was evident the Highlanders have a ridiculously talented club that could play with DeMatha once they settled down, stopped shooting ill-advised jumpers and started taking the ball to the basket. Mayo started out the game making only one of his first six shots in the first quarter, but he opened the second period with a soft 14-foot jumper in the key to make the score 17-13.
Mayo picked up his game in the second period and the Highlanders also got a lift from Patrick Patterson, as the nation's top unsigned senior kept his team close with some offensive rebound put-backs and hustling defense that led to easy buckets for teammates. A lay-up by Mayo made the score 23-21 and back-to-back lay-ups by Michael Taylor pulled Huntington to within one point, 29-28. Huntington trailed the entire first half until Mayo drained a well-timed three-pointer from the right wing as the seconds ticked away on the first half, giving the Highlanders a 31-29 halftime lead.
Huntington continued its inspired play in the second half as Mayo got his team off to a good start by nailing a three-pointer on Huntington's first possession. Huntington built up a 38-30 lead off a 14-1 spurt that started late in the second quarter before Princeton recruit Jeff Peterson ended the run with a lay-up.
DeMatha proceeded to go on a run of its own, eventually tying the game at 40 on a floater by highly-regarded freshman Brian Allen. DeMatha, however, would get no closer as Oklahoma recruit Chris Early answered with a three-pointer to give Huntington the lead right back. After sitting much of the first half with foul trouble, Early played solidly after intermission, making six of nine shots and finishing with 15 second-half points.
Despite Early's and Mayo's scoring, the real key to Huntington's 12-point win was the overall play of Patterson at both ends of the floor. The 6-foot-8 forward (who the ESPNU announcers said will make his college choice sometime in February) finished with 14 points, 16 rebounds and four blocked shots, including a couple attempts by DeMatha high-scorer Austin Freeman, who finished with 27 points.
The Highlanders' faithful got a scare with 7:32 remaining in the fourth quarter when Mayo hit his head on the floor after driving the baseline hard and falling off balance after making contact with a DeMatha player in mid-air. Mayo suffered a cut above his left eye after the fall and no-call, but on queue he hit a jumper in the key the first time he touched the ball after re-entering to give the Highlanders a 50-40 lead. Mayo, like Freeman, finished with 27 points on nine of 23 shooting from the field while Freeman made 10 of 24 shots. Mayo did make seven of 10 free-throw attempts, but made only two of eight three-point attempts.
With the win, Huntington proved it could play with the nation's elite teams and the Highlanders should move up from their No. 8 spot in the preseason FAB 50 when the first in-season Student Sports ratings are released this week. No. 7 Mater Dei (Santa Ana, CA) lost to in-state Artesia of Lakewood after earlier wining the City of Palms tournament in Florida.
DeMatha already handed No. 5 St Patrick a loss and Huntington will get its crack at Artesia at the end of the month on the same night that Mater Dei will play top-ranked Oak Hill Academy at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Highlanders will also play St. Patrick in another nationally televised contest on February 22 and it looks like those three games will have huge implications on this year's national rankings barring a huge in-state letdown by the Highlanders.
Preseason No. 4 Norcross (GA), like DeMatha, has already lost twice, once to Oak Hill and to St. Patrick in the semifinals of the ANI Tournament in Houston. DeMatha lost its only other contest before Saturday night in overtime to Decatur (IL) at the St. Louis Shootout in a game that Freeman and junior Chris Braswell sat out with injuries.
Simeon of Chicago, No. 3 in the preseason, was defeated in the quarterfinals of a post-holiday tournament by cross-town Farragut Academy as star guard Derrick Rose was held to seven points in the 62-54 loss.
Those results bode well for Huntington, at least until their match up with Artesia. The Highlanders will play California's top-ranked team and on that same night they will be rooting for the Golden State's second-ranked squad to knock off the Warriors. Oak Hill, of course, must first get by Simeon on January 18 before they can begin to worry about Mater Dei.
Besides the top-ranked Warriors, the only other club ranked ahead of West Virginia's finest that remains unbeaten is No. 6 Mount Vernon of New York, which checks in with a 7-0 record. The Knights, like the other top ball clubs, have a tough road ahead of them as they face Norcross in Springfield, Massachusetts on January 15. They'll also have their hands full with Aliquippa (Pa) and then close the season with traditional power St. Raymond's of the Bronx at the Primetime Shootout in New Jersey.
Although the games and countless tournament might be hard to follow at times, high school boys basketball rankings just might be the most exciting to follow. Unlike football juggernauts, many of the nation's top cage teams actually get to square off so the next two months should provide some memorable moments for high school basketball fans around the country.
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