The College Summer League playoffs got started with both a bang and a thud on Tuesday night at Maryknoll’s gym.
In the first of two opening-round games, No. 4 Clark Hatch Fitness rallied to prevail 76-71 over No. 5 National Fire Protection and earn a date with top-seeded Central Medical Clinic on Thursday. Leon Ballard scored 19 points to lead the way.
In the nightcap, it was a no-doubter as No. 3 Wealth Strategy Partners coasted behind Julian Sensley, Waly Coulibaly and William Broadus to a 108-80 blowout of No. 6 Grantco Pacific. Wealth Strategy gets defending champion Solar Universe.
National Fire, riding the hot hand of UH guard Garrett Nevels (29 points), led big at the outset of Game 1 and still protected a 10-point lead at halftime. But the defensive tone of the game (shocking, I know) eventually swung matters and Rainbow Warriors point guard Keith Shamburger made several of the key plays.
“People don’t want to lose right now,” Shamburger said. “We all gotta go back to school, we’re (rooming together). This is a big deal to us right now. We all don’t want to lose. We’re all talking about who’s going to win. We battled out here tonight.”
Shamburger scored 14 of his 16 points after halftime, including a couple of 3s during a stretch where Nevels was issued a technical for complaining about a no-call. Clark Hatch tied it at 59, then went ahead, and NFP never recovered.
“It was a tough one. They were giving it to us at the beginning,” Shamburger said. “We just had to lock down second half. I had to take Garrett out the game, basically. Deny him, whatever I had to do to make sure he stopped scoring so that they could slow down a little bit. Garrett was phenomenal in the first half. Stef (Jovanovic) was doing good also. … It was a good game.”
Wing Michael Thomas was a quiet performer in this one, scoring five for Clark Hatch in a reserve role. But he was part of a defensive effort that helped hold NFP to 22 second-half points.
“I think the focus was defense. We finally started locking them down,” Thomas said.
Thomas has a way to go to be a regular contributor at the college level, but he is young and has the advantage of time.
“I’m taking the intensity and physicality of it here and taking it back to UH, and using it there,” said Thomas, who was offered some pointers by league veterans over the last few weeks. “Take (any game) seriously and don’t go through the motions at all. Always go hard, play hard.”
Nevels was snake-bit in his summer league appearances, scoring 20-plus points every time out without wins to show for his efforts. In the halfcourt for National Fire, he usually took it upon himself to create his own shot, for better or worse.
“It’s a game of runs, so when you get a lead you can’t expect to hold it the whole time,” Nevels said. “But I mean, we played hard the whole way through. We played our best game today so I can’t be mad. We played hard, we put up a fight. So I’m proud of my team.”
Nevels, whom some are expecting to contribute immediately as a scorer for UH, was asked to look ahead to the regular season and what he needed to improve upon.
“I need to get my stamina up. Later in the second half, I got fatigued,” he said. “In the regular season, that can’t happen. Better decision making. If the help comes to me, knowing where to make the next pass, get my teammates an open shot. … Being a playmaker, I’m always expected to make a play. But playing with my teammates at UH, it will be a lot easier for me because I got people like Keith who can create for himself, create for others. I’ll be able to pick my spots and it will be a problem for the other team.”
Jovanovic had his moments on both ends, scoring 12 and blocking a few shots.
“The game was really hard. We were playing against some really good (UH) teammates,” Jovanovic said. “We really tried to win because it’s a playoff game. We gave everything we had. … At the end, small mistakes.”
Jovanovic said Bill Amis of Central Medical Clinic has helped him the most on tips for being a college big man. On this night, Nevels was in his ear much of the game. Afterward, the guard credited him for battling for rebounds and not being discouraged.
“He doesn’t quit,” Nevels offered.
Game 2, sadly, could not come close to rivaling the dramatics and theatrics of Game 1.
Bottom-seeded Grantco Pacific struggled to keep pace with Wealth Strategy Partners from the get-go, and it only got worse late. Sensley scored 28, Coulibaly had 29 and Broadus 14 as the Maryknoll gym crowd steadily dwindled into the night over staying for a 30-point laugher.
The most depressing part? Fan favorite Aaron Valdes was knocked out of the playoffs. Yep, the local market on highlight reel dunks and above-the-rim plays just got a lot smaller until the winter. The UH redshirt freshman was out of sorts in the first half, but played hard through what became a lot of garbage time to score 28 in the loss.
“Trying to control the bigs inside, mostly (was the toughest part),” Valdes said. “I was just trying to keep the mind-set of playing hard. … Especially in the playoffs, I wanted to play hard every second.”
He could be in line for some playing time this fall and winter if he can translate his improvement, particularly in shooting and dribbling, into Gib Arnold’s system.
“I feel like I’ve grown a lot and matured a lot as a player, on and off the court,” Valdes said. “Working out with some of the guys back home helped a lot. … (Here this summer) you can showcase your skills and what you’ve improved on since last year.”
UH redshirt freshman center Caleb Dressler was out of sorts for most of Tuesday’s game, scoring nine points. As is his style, he was also blunt and honest about it.
“I personally couldn’t do anything. I don’t know what, maybe it was the mind-set or something,” Dressler said. “Our team was just, we couldn’t score. Early on I think we battled them pretty well, and the start of the second half we were playing well. … We just didn’t have that much of it and it started falling apart.”
Dressler, Jovanovic and senior Davis Rozitis will have to prove the worth of the true center in a few months in a league known for its small ball.
“I gotta rebound more,” Dressler said. “I don’t think I rebounded up to my potential (in summer league). I think this year that’s what they’re going to be looking for from me. They’re not as much (about) scoring. I need to be able to rebound, create possessions. I learned I need to do that. So I need to work on that going in.”
That’s it for tonight. I’ll have something later Wednesday or Thursday morning heading into Thursday’s games.