DICK’S Nationals Girls Final

By Christopher Lawlor

NEW YORK – The Miami (Fla.) Country Day Lady Spartans capped a championship season, winning a Florida Class 4A title in February in blitzkrieg fashion.

They can add the DICK’S Nationals National Championship to their impressive dossier. The Lady Spartans returned to the top of the girls’ prep basketball world on Saturday following a two-day run that saw them win by 7 and 36 points. On both days, the margins of victory could have been more overwhelming.

The competition level was higher, but Miami Country Day took their game and intensity level into the stratosphere.

Sparked by a balanced, unrelenting attack, the Lady Spartans crushed Hamilton Heights Christian Academy (Chattanooga, Tenn.), 81-55, in the DICK’S Sporting Goods High School National Tournament girls’ championship at Christ the King High School’s Father John Savage Memorial Gymnasium.

“Only a select few teams get a chance to play here,” Miami Country coach Day Ochiel Swaby said. “But you get here because of all the hard work and sacrifice. Our kids give up family outings for Saturday practices. And some ask about that. Well, winning this tournament and playing against the national schedule like we do suddenly everyone want to play for us.

“First, you have to buy in to what we do. Obviously this team has done that.”

For the Lady Spartans (31-1), it is their second title here to go along with the one annexed in 2015. It is the fifth time in 9 years that a Florida High School Athletic Association school has won the title, joining Orlando Dr. Phillips (Orlando) with two, and last year’s champion Jacksonville Ribault (Jacksonville), which despite winning a state title, did not receive a return invitation.

Miami Country Day shot 47.6% (30 of 63) from the floor; 40.6% from 3-pointers (13 of 32) and 80% from the foul line (8 of 10). The Lady Hawks were 21 of 76 (27.6%) from the field.

Hamilton Heights, which concluded 29-2, burst onto the national scene this season and will be a factor for years especially with a pair of precocious 6-feet-6-inch Brazilian post Camilla Cardosa and 5-9 Ruth Balogun, originally from Nigeria. Balogun was named to the all-tournament team.

“They have a great team and have been here before. It was our first time. We have high expectations in our program and this will fuel our return next year,” Heights coach Keisha Hunt.

The Lady Spartans had leads of 39, 40 and 42 points before settling on a 36-point winning margin on Saturday.

Sophomore Maria Alvarez, who was named the Most Valuable Player, finished with 26 points, making 8 of 11 from 3-point land. Kelsey Marshall had 23 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists.

Alvarez’s long-range shooting was nearly flawless in two days.

“You just can’t let the nerves get to you,” she said.

Heading into the fourth quarter, the lead ballooned to 40 points. The Lady Spartans kept their foot on the accelerator and emptied their bench. The two-headed scoring monster of Alvarez and Miami-bound Marshall had teamed for 49 points, including 10 3-point field goals. The lady Spartans’ 30-8 tear in the third essentially clinched the title.

Senior point guard Channise Lewis was the most outstanding player for the tournament. She was the ultimate facilitator and leader. Her value cannot be measured in the metrics, though she did have 10 assists, 6 rebounds and 7 points. She acted as the puppet master who pulled the strings and the offense hummed when she orchestrated in transition or in traditional sets.

“My job is to get the team going. I like to get the others their open shots; as you can tell I’m a pass-first point guard,” Lewis said.

Said Swaby: “She [Lewis] is the best at what she does.”

Midway through the third, Marshall’s long 3-pointer from the right wing gave the Lady Spartans their largest lead at 32 points, 58-26. It was the constant pressure at both ends and pass-happy Lewis dissecting a porous defense.

The Lady Spartans were 5 of 11 from the beyond the arc in the first half and 16 of 34 overall for 47.1%. Alvarez did her damage from the perimeter, dropping in four 3-pointers to fuel 14 points and Marshall topped all scorers with 16.

Alabama State-bound Amber Hunt had 7 points, including a trey, but the supporting cast only connected on 9 of 25 shots for 36%. She finished with a team-high 14 points. Tennessee-commit junior guard Jazmine Massengill threw in 11 points and grabbed 14 rebounds and freshman Treasure Hunt scored 10.

Lewis ran the show to perfection, demonstrating why the Illinois Illini have a keeper for the next four years. In transition, she was bold, taking it to the rim or moving the ball to the open wing. In the halfcourt sets, she was mindful of the gaps and created openings for the 3-point game.

The Lady Spartans took care of early and left no doubt who is the nation’s top prep girls’ team. In the first quarter, they took leads of 14-2, 19-4 and 22-4. When it was over, the Miamians led 22-8.

“They took us to the woodshed,” Keisha Hunt said of her team’s slow start. “We had the zombie affect to start; that gazed look. Today is difficult to swallow but we’ll be back.”

Alvarez and Marshall represented the winners on the all-tournament team, Balogun did the same for Heights. Junior Sarah Barcello of Seton Catholic Prep (Chandler, Ariz.) and freshman Angel Reese of St. Frances Academy (Baltimore) were also on the select team.