Apple vs. Empire Showcase Games
Bronx sophomore Corey Fisher and Niagara Falls junior Paul Harris took center stage at the inaugural event featuring many of the best high school players from the state of New York.
MANHATTAN, N.Y. --- Getting together the best that the state of New York has to offer for a pre-season game sounds like no easy task.
Well not only did it happen, but the fact that all the kids took the game serious enough and didn’t turn it into a mixtape made for an event that lived up to what it was thought to be on paper.
Eric Jaklitsch and Nick Blatchford of the New York Elite and New Heights AAU programs orchestrated the first annual Apple versus Empire games, featuring an Underclassmen and a Seniors game at a filled John Jay Community College on 10th Ave. and 59th Street.
Of course there were plenty of highlights to look back on, but one of the reasons the game was more controlled was because of the change in court.
Most of the chosen players compete in the IS8 League during the fall, which just wrapped up last week. The league is at the IS8 middle school in South Jamaica, Queens, and with it being a middle school gym, the court is significantly smaller than regulation.
“I had kids telling me they were feeling it out there,” coach of the Senior Apple team and Cardozo High School head coach Ron Naclerio said. “With IS8 having been over for a couple weeks now for some of these kids, you could see it was good for them to get back on the 94 foot court before the high school season starts.”
The Empire teams won both games and the underclassmen gave a tough act to follow even for a collection of A-list seniors.
And as much the games were good workouts and a chance for New York’s promising collegiate recruits to play in a game all together, when you have two players being warned by the referee as they fight for position on an inbounds pass, then you can tell that this wasn’t your typical all-star outing for all of them, and enjoyably so.
Despite different groups of five going out to start each new quarter, Corey Fisher (Bronx) and Paul Harris (Niagara Falls) managed to make it a game within the game each time that the two were on the floor.
Neither the Apple team nor the Empire team was assumed to be victorious until the final minute, and the winner of the Fisher-Harris match-up may not have been at all.
Harris was dominating by combining a composed attack and using his 6’4”, 205 pound swollen frame to get to the hole at will. Fisher was likewise turning it on behind his quickness and mixing it up with his handle, scoring off the dribble just as well as Harris and also proving to be a threat from deep.
The only thing separating Harris and Fisher from each other was that Fisher, a combo guard at St. Patrick’s in New Jersey, went for 27 points and won co-MVP honors for the Apple squad, whereas Harris dropped 23 in the 101-95 Empire win and commanded down the stretch.
Co-MVP from the Empire Melquan Bolding (Beacon H.S.) was certainly not overshadowed by any means. The sophomore swingman finished with 22 points and had just as much attention on him after an aggressive offensive effort in the second quarter.
Harris and Fisher’s baseline-to-baseline battle was undoubtedly the most captivating display on the day though.
With three minutes remaining and the Empire up 94-89, Fisher looked to bring his team within striking distance as he and Harris were isolated on the wing. He did just that in a sequence that also gave him what you could call a “battle-point.”
Fisher had Harris rocking and drew him into reaching for fouls on two consecutive trips down the court, once in which Fisher hit a long jumper in the act to bring the Apple back within two, 94-92.
The intensity of the match-up continued with Fisher’s defending Harris full-court. Before handing the ball off to be inbounded, the referee warned to give each other some space as the two struggled for position - one of the clearest examples of how these two were digging in so much in the clutch.
Harris then responded and left Fisher out to dry in the backcourt by spinning on him with his first move and racing lengths ahead of him up court, almost as an answer to the fouls that Fisher drew on him just moments before.
From there Harris penetrated and scored on consecutive possessions to put the Empire back up six, 98-92.
Fisher came back with a lay-up in traffic, and the lead was now back down to the three after a put-back-plus-one by Curtis Kelly, a Rice H.S. junior who at 6’8” was also doing work both inside and outside en route to his 21-point performance.
Harris stayed too strong, though, and kept persistent in his willing himself to get in the paint, icing things with four free throws in the final half-minute.
Although afterwards Harris would laugh and simply say he liked Fisher’s game, and Fisher did likewise, there was no denying what these two prospects brought to the table when the game was not only on the line, but from the opening whistle.
The tone was set after the opening tap as both Harris and Fisher tied each other up in mid-dribble.
Fisher got off first with a three from the right side and was on the receiving end of a give-and-go with Kelly.
Empire hung evenly tough with the Apple team in the opening period as Rob Thomas, a pure, flat-out scoring junior now prepping at South Kent (CT), was his usual relentless self as soon as the ball found his hands. Finishing strong on drives and turning in a dunk after rebounding his own free-throw miss, Thomas opened up with eight of the first 10 points for the Empire squad.
Harris was equally effective in getting to the cup as his teammate Thomas (although from Brooklyn). A pull-up jumper over Fisher would tie things up at 21-21 before the second unit saw time.
All Hallows point guard Chris De La Rosa’s passing was complementary to Bolding in the second quarter as the two helped put the Empire ahead at halftime, 53-46.
Taylor Battle, a guard at Christian Brothers’ of Albany, and Bolding connected on a lob as did Fisher and Kelly to highlight the third period. Harris added a take to the basket plus one at the line and went to a deep crossover the next possession as he went through three Apple defenders for another bucket.
The play of the game came before the end of the third. Getting ahead on a fast-break, Thomas took a pass from mid-court, found himself all alone and put down a windmill that he brought up from his hip.
Other notables included 13 points from Rice junior guard Edgar Sosa and 12 from Monroe’s Michael Glover, the brother of former St. John’s player Anthony Glover.
No match-ups developed that were of the caliber of that in the Underclassmen game. Intriguing though? The most was by far between the MVP’s occupying the paint for their respective squads in the Empire’s 82-77 victory.
Andray Blatche is a 6’10” Syracuse native who was the top prospect for next year’s NBA Draft among those in the game. Blatche is a teammate of Rob Thomas’ at South Kent this season, and his counterpart on the Apple squad is also playing outside of their home state.
Vernon Goodridge is at Philadelphia (PA) Lutheran but hails from Brooklyn. Like Blatche, he’s 6’9”, and is deciding between Georgetown, Pittsburgh and Mississippi State.
Blatche finished with 18 points to Goodridge’s eight. The difference is there in numbers, however two of the top centers in not only the state, but in the country, had some exchanges where the two matched each other quite well.
Goodridge opened the game with a turnaround jumper on the baseline and extended to the elbow on his next shot as Blatche played off.
Blatche was set up nicely early by Troy H.S. point guard Tiki Mayben, a Syracuse commit who finished with 10 points. Blatche returned the favor with some high screens to create space for Mayben’s opening up with two three-pointers.
Both the big men punched some shots out the air as well - Blatche sending one back on Frane Markusovic, a 6’10” mid-200s center from Croatia and now at Kent School (CT), and Goodridge pinning a Jon Han (Tilton) ill-advised attempt in the paint.
Two other frontcourt forces and future Big East players also locked up inside. Pittsburgh commit Tyrell Biggs from the Apple team finished with 12 points and played noticeably well against Seton Hall recruit John Garcia.
St. Raymond’s Chris Bethel showed some improvement from the summer at the guard spot that he is working on adjusting to playing. The 6’6” typically active presence inside brought it up the floor and managed to get around his defender on a couple of occasions, something he’ll have to do more of next year as he stays home in the Bronx to play at Fordham.
Bethel’s high school teammate Ricky Torres, also staying home and heading to St. John’s, finished with a team-high 14 points for the Apple squad. They got double-figures from Torres and Biggs, and 10 from National Christian (MD) guard Jessie Sapp, but it was not enough to overcome the Empire’s Danny Green’s crucial work on both ends of the floor in the decisive minutes.
Xaverian point guard Levance Fields seemed to have an open lay-up until the future North Carolina playmaker came and paused the ball on the glass, and then blocked Fields again on the follow. Green reacted quick yet again and this time took the ball out of the grips of Biggs, holding onto the 76-73 lead the Empire had with 1:45 remaining.
Green, who went for 16 points, would be on the receiving end of a Mayben assist in transition and Blatche made it a wrap as he switched roles with Mount Vernon point guard Chris Lowe (10 points) and fed him for the finish on a break.
Patrick Stevens is a journalism major at the University of Rhode Island and a frequent contributor to Insidehoops.com.