The Alaska Airlines Classic got a lesson in East Coast basketball this week, courtesy of Simon Gratz High of Philadelphia.
The Bulldogs, national champions two years ago, walked away with the tournament championship by playing strong defense and ball-control offense on their way to a 48-45 win over St. Joseph Notre Dame of California at West High.
Simon Gratz senior guard Terrell Stokes was voted the tournament MVP.
The Bulldogs held opponents to an average of 46 points per game in the tournament as a result of their deliberate offense, opportunistic defense and two heady guards in seniors Stokes and Brian Samuels.
The 1-2 punch combined for 23 points Saturday night. Stokes – a 6-foot, preseason All-American – won the tournament assist title by dishing out 19, seven of them in the title game.
And the Bulldogs do rely heavily on those guards. Against St. Joseph — a talented, but young team made up entirely of underclassmen — Stokes and Samuels combined for six of Simon Gratz’s final seven points.
The Pilots never got closer than 41-38 with 2 minutes, 50 seconds left in the game — and that’s when Stokes and Samuels took over. Stokes converted a three-point play on a drive to the basket, while Samuels sank two of three free throws in the final minute.
Stokes added another free throw with eight seconds left, while St. Joseph sophomore Brandon Payton – the younger brother of NBA star Gary Payton of the Seattle Supersonics — hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to make the final score.
That’s the way Simon Gratz won all of its games this week – narrowly.
In Thursday’s first round, the Bulldogs held off Dimond 45-42, then beat Butler High of Huntsville, Ala., 54-53 in Friday’s semifinal.
On offense, they are patient, making sure each possession counts. On defense, they are relentless. Simon Gratz forced 26 St. Joseph turnovers and stole the ball 15 times.