BEVERLY, Mass. -- From Alex Oriakhi to Jamaal Coombs-McDaniel, Gerard Coleman and everyone in between, it's been a domineering three-peat in the NEPSAC for Tilton's renowned prep school basketball program.
So what to say of a four-peat?
"Feels like I'm on top of the world right now actually," beamed junior forward Georges Niang, moments after the Rams took care of St. Mark's in impressive fashion, 72-56, for a fourth straight NEPSAC boys' basketball title, at Endicott College's Post Center. The Rams won three straight Class B titles from 2008 to 2010, before moving to Class AA in this season's realignment.
Niang, who was named the Class AA tournament's Most Valuable Player after going off for 25 points, nine rebounds and five assists on the Lions (28-3) in this championship game, called the whole thing "nuts".
"From Alex to Jamaal and Gerard, and then this team right here, we've had a hell of a team so far," the 6-foot-7 Niang said. "I can't complain. All the fellas work hard, and we all play as a team, so that's why we're winning championships. Can't say nothing about [head coach Marcus] O'Neil, he gets it done. He lets us know what we have to do, and how to get it done."
To get it done this afternoon, the Rams (26-4) came full-circle on an axiom that had dogged them early-on in the season -- namely, selflessness. At points in the season, some felt Tilton preferred isolation plays over the extra pass; but Niang said the turning point came in a loss to Maine Central this season, a buzzer-beater after which O'Neil told them they won't win any more games unless they start passing the ball.
"That was the thing. We really didn't want to run the offense, we'd get into personal battles and try to go one-on-one," Niang said. "And then the Class [AAA] teams like Brewster, they'd eat us up. Now we're running offense, I feel like we're exposing them because we have guys that can step out and shoot, and we have Wayne [Selden], who can get to the hole on anybody. We have point guards that can get them the ball. Just a variety of things."
Indeed, ball movement was the key ingredient in getting the Rams' high-flyers like Niang and freshman Wayne Selden (22 points) active above the rim. Whether it was a dish the open weak-side post in the half-court, or a long outlet in transition, the Rams kept the ball off the floor, and that left St. Mark's frozen at times.
"We talked a lot about speeding them up," Lions head coach David Lubick said. "We sped them up effectively at times, and there were times we didn't. We've talked all year about weakside rotations -- you can't speed up one guy, you've got to speed up the whole team. We did it, and we did it well, but not for the whole game. And then at the other end, you've got to make easier plays. We didn't need to speed ourselves up on offense."
Tilton closed out the first half on a 12-5 run to take a 36-24 lead into the break. The Lions made their push late in the second half, with back-to-back three's from Eli Lubick and Kevin Zabo cutting Tilton's lead to 56-49. Peter Kazickas cut it to an even slimmer margin, 59-53, with a layup in transition with 4:23 to go. But the Lions were held to just one field goal the rest of the way, while the Rams opened up the floor again -- punctuated with the wildest of several crowd-wowing alley-oops on the afternoon, a powerful one-handed Selden slam off a long Niang toss.
"Everything started with the defense today," Selden said. "We knew if that if we came out and took care of things on defense, everything else would come out."
Nik Stauskas led the Lions in the loss with 17 points, while 7-foot junior center Kaleb Tarczewski pitched in with 12 points and nine rebounds.
BIG MEETS BIG
One of the most intriguing sub-plots of the game had to have been the much-anticipated matchup between Tarczewski and the 6-foot-11 Tilton sophomore Nerlens Noel, considered two of the nation's premier high school big men.
Tarzcewski finished with respectable numbers around the basket, and managed to sneak in a left-handed baby hook on the Everett native. Meanwhile Noel, the nation's No. 2 overall sophomore, asserted himself on the defensive end in the first half, with a throwback up-down style around the rim. He had six rebounds and three blocks in the first 16 minutes.
Consider the matchup a draw. But Lubick noted the Noel effect in the middle was sizeable.
"You can challenge him sometimes, when you get your body into him and you're isolated," Lubick said. "But not when there's another guy there with him, that's the point you've got to kick the ball out. We knew what he is at the rim, and we challenged him too much."
VISITS FOR NIANG
Much has been made of the suitors lining up for Noel's services, but Niang will most certainly see his stock rise over the next six months -- if not for this strong junior season, than with all the exposure he figures to get running with Leo Papile's Boston Amateur Basketball Club on the AAU circuit.
Niang, a Methuen native, says he has unofficial visits planned later this month for Iowa and Iowa State. Texas A&M, Colorado, Northeastern, Siena, Hofstra, George Mason, Florida Atlantic, Miami (Ohio) have shown interest, but Niang noted "my recruitment is open for everybody."
Brendan Hall is a high school editor at ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.