SAN DIEDO -- The 20th annual MaxPreps Holiday Classic was supposed to give a bunch of teams from the West Coast a shot at a New Jersey power that's ranked No. 2 in the ESPN RISE FAB 50.
It turned out to be more of a coronation for St. Patrick (Elizabeth, N.J.).
The Celtics (5-0) shrugged off travel headaches to dispatch three opponents, including Newark Memorial (Newark, Calif.), 66-43, in Wednesday's National Division championship.
Tournament Most Outstanding Player Kyrie Irving teamed up with Michael Gilchrist to outscore Newark Memorial, 47-43. Gilchrist had a game-high 25 points, 16 rebounds and five blocked shots. Irving added 22 points.
"It was all about heart," said Gilchrist, a junior. "We don't think about the rankings. It's all about winning."
St. Patrick may not be thinking about rankings, but we are.
With preseason No. 1 Findlay Prep (Henderson, Nev.) losing in mid-December, the Celtics are primed to secure the No.1 spot in next week's updated FAB 50 rankings. No. 3 Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) entered Wednesday's finals of the Les Schwab Invitational undefeated at 18-0 but lost to a two-loss Westchester (Los Angeles, Calif.) team, 52-47.
St. Patrick opened the MaxPreps tourney on Saturday with an 83-35 win over Ironwood Ridge (Oro Valley, Ariz.). The Celtics followed that with a dominant 95-67 victory over Centennial (Corona, Calif.).
Taft (Woodland Hills, Calif.) was the favorite to face St. Pat's in the final, but Newark Memorial outscored Taft, 17-5, in the fourth quarter of the semifinals to escape with a 48-41 win. Taft star forward DeAndre Daniels was saddled by early foul trouble and finished with only two points.
For one quarter against St. Patrick, Newark Memorial (10-2) showed how it advanced to the championship, controlling tempo and pounding the ball inside to take a 11-10 lead after eight minutes.
In the second quarter, however, Gilchrist started to play like one of the nation's best players. He scored 12 points and led a defensive charge that saw the Celtics outscore the Cougars, 22-9, to take a 32-20 halftime lead.
"I thought Michael was exceptional the last two games," St. Patrick coach Kevin Boyle said. "He turned this game around in the middle of the second quarter with a couple of steals. And he made his free throws on the other end."
St. Patrick slowly pulled away in the second half, using a dominant transition game.
Khion Sankey (15), Kendall Andrews (14) and Casey Norris (10) let Newark Memorial, which had 24 turnovers.
"They are a well-coached team and did a good job," Boyle added. "We were not going to beat them by 20 points at the end of the first quarter. We did a good job of not rushing. Irving was very good tonight. The MOP could have easily went to Mike, but they are truly happy for each other's success."
Blend St. Patrick's talent with its unselfishness, and you have the ingredients of a No.1 ranked team.
Before winning the National Division, St. Patrick had to travel across the nation from New Jersey to San Diego.
The Celtics left for San Diego on Dec. 25, the same day as the attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253.
"We were boarding and there was breaking news, and the kids saw it on the plane," coach Boyle said. "We couldn't keep it from them because every seat had a television. It's been a while since 9/11, but as Americans these things we see on TV are not as much of a shock. Until something happens, you don't see how real it is and the value (of life)."
The Celtics are just one of many teams that travel the country to play in big-time events. Boyle doesn't see that changing anytime soon in light of the recent airport incident.
Boyle isn't alone.
"It's definitely worth it to fly," Bishop O'Dowd (Oakland, Calif.) sophomore Brandon Ashley said. "Facing the best competition possible and measuring yourself against top teams from other areas is what makes it worth it. We were kind of scared when we heard what happened on Christmas. We kind of joked about it to get it off our minds."
2009 Maxpreps Holiday Classic National
Division All-Tournament Team
Jahi Carson -- Mesa (Mesa, Ariz.)
Brandon Ashley -- Bishop O'Dowd (Oakland, Calif.)
Allen Crabbe -- Price (Los Angeles, Calif.)
Alex Varner -- Eisenhower (Rialto, Calif.)
Roy Gordan -- Leuzinger (Lawndale, Calif.)
Grant Jerrett -- Lutheran (La Verne, Calif.)
Pierson Williams -- Taft (Woodland Hills, Calif.)
Dominique Dunning -- Centennial (Corona, Calif.)
Khion Sankey -- Newark Memorial (Newark, Calif.)
Kendall Andrews -- Newark Memorial (Newark, Calif.)
Derrick Gordon -- St. Patrick (Elizabeth, N.J.)
Michael Gilchrist -- St. Patrick (Elizabeth, N.J.)
Kyrie Irving -- St. Patrick (Elizabeth, N.J.)*