SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- It was like a clash of basketball titans Sunday at the Hoophall Classic when Brewster Academy squared off against the Tilton School.
There was a playoff atmosphere with two well-traveled crowds verbally jousting in the stands while two NEPSAC teams featuring highly-touted recruits did battle on the court, which Brewster won 57-53.
Nerlens Noel, a 6-foot-11 Tilton junior -- ranked No. 2 in the Class of 2013 by ESPNU -- went up against the No. 2 ranked recruit in this year’s class, Mitch McGary, at the center position.
It’s not often that a player can record seven blocks in a game and have it be considered an average night, but that is what life is like now for Noel now.
He has become so notorious for his defensive presence and penchant for having double-digit block totals, that when he has a game like he did Sunday, some might even call it an off night.
Nerlens still was able to make his presence felt on offense though. He was 7-of-10 from the field, finishing with 22 points.
In one defensive sequence in the first quarter, he had two blocks that brought the crowd to its feet. It immediately set the tone for what Brewster would be facing around the basket all night.
Brewster was able to get the big man in foul trouble though, picking up his fourth foul with 2:13 left in the third quarter, which forced him to the bench.
“Our guards got more open looks at the rack [when Noel went to the bench] and we had a lot better rebounding,” said McGary. “We had to box out, but we didn’t have to look out behind our backs for Nerlens and Goodluck (Okonoboth) going over the top of us.”
That left Okonoboth alone to protect the Tilton basket for the rest of the third quarter, and part of the fourth. He knew he was up for the challenge though.
“I knew I just had to play smart, move my feet, because I wasn’t trying to get in any foul trouble,” he said. “When Nerlens is in foul trouble, and he’s rarely in foul trouble, you just have to play really smart.”
Together, they held the Michigan commit to 3 points all game, but couldn’t keep him away from the glass. He finished the game with 12 rebounds.
“Mitch, he’s a very rugged player, very strong,” said Noel. “He posts up where he needs to, uses his body real well.”
McGary’s frontcourt mate, JaKarr Sampson, had an efficient night offensively matched up against Okonoboh, finishing with 13 points and 7 rebounds. He is a perfect counterpart to McGary’s game, providing speed and quickness to balance McGary’s strength and power in the post.
He had two highlight reel put-back dunks in the fourth quarter that showed off his athleticism. After Aaron Thomas put up a shot from the perimeter, Sampson came from the foul line and then rather than trying to out-muscle the already positioned post players, he just jumped over them and put the ball in the basket for a thunderous two points.
With his team down by 12 points early in the fourth, Noel reentered the game before it could get out of hand. He was noticeably cognizant of his situation, and would often not jump when defending players equally as strong as him, like McGary.
He was not having his most successful night from the field (1-for-8), but that did not stop him from attacking the basket against the Tilton big men.
“You just have to get into their body and back them down in the post,” said McGary. “Offensively I didn’t do as well tonight because they’re such major factors down low. There’s not much you can do. They’re both really good shot blockers, so you just have to body them up and get up and go through their body when you’re shooting.
With five and a half minutes to go in the game, Noel converted an and-one to make the score 50-43. On the next Brewster offensive possession, he blocked two Brewster shots in a row, then got the ball and sent an outlet pass to teammate Wayne Selden, who dunked the ball in front of an oncoming McGary.
The respect Noel and McGary have for each other was evident when they both reentered the game in the fourth. When they checked in and sat down at the scorers table, McGary said something to Noel, who nodded in response and reached out his hand, which McGary high-fived.
Sunday was a chess match between four premier big men who came to play on a big stage. For a few hours, there was no talk about rankings or college commitments. It was simply a competitive basketball game between two quality teams who wanted nothing more than to win. Brewster came out on top Sunday, but it was one of those games where people will remember who and what they saw from both teams for a long time to come.