NEW YORK — For much of the game, it appeared it might be the most important incidental brush of the eye in recent prep basketball history.
With 1:34 remaining in the first quarter of the DICK’S High School Nationals title game, Montverde Academy superstar Ben Simmons was hit in the eye by a flying finger from Oak Hill point guard Terrence Phillips. He left the game and was immediately seen with a towel over his eye. Evaluated by an athletic trainer on the sideline, he remained on the bench until the 3:54 mark of the second period, when he returned following a TV timeout.
Yes, Simmons finished with a co-game-high 20 points and 11 rebounds in the 70-61 victory and was awarded the MVP of the tournament for a second consecutive season, not far off the 28 points and 12 rebounds he averaged during Montverde’s regular season. Yet this was anything but smooth sailing.
The LSU-bound big man with the court vision of a point guard missed 5:40 of game action, and when he returned he hardly touched the ball for the final four minutes of the half. He had just seven points after three quarters. Traditionally a confident free throw shooter, he hit just 6-of-11 in the title game, and was 1-for-5 from the line before the critical late stages of the fourth quarter.
He wouldn’t say precisely what happened, only that it wasn’t a serious injury. Still, it was scary enough that the No. 1 overall basketball prospect in the Class of 2015 seriously questioned whether he would be able to continue.
“I thought I was going to be out the whole game,” Simmons said. “The same thing happened to me in an AAU game in Dallas and I was out the whole game. This time I took some eye drops and came back. Physically I was fine but it was all mental.”
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That Simmons turned on the jets at all might be down to a series around the 5:15 mark of the fourth quarter where he took a charge from beefy Oak Hill forward Joe Hampton on one end and then took charge on the other. Suddenly, he began asserting himself in the lane, cutting to the hoop and creating for himself and his teammates when he drew double and triple coverage from Oak Hill. One one possession he hit a jumper. He followed a minute later with a drive in the lane and a layup, got busy in the paint and filled his role as the sun around which Montverde’s offense rotates.
Suddenly, the Eagles began playing and looking like they have for most of the prior two-plus seasons since Simmons arrived in Florida.
“After that second charge, as soon as that happened we had the edge,” Simmons said.
He was right; Simmons had 12 points and three of his rebounds in the stretch from that charge until the final whistle, all while serving as the primary inbounds outlet to foil Oak Hill’s full court press.
Part of the motivation for Simmons was making sure he didn’t let down his teammates — he said he would have felt the loss was his fault if he hadn’t returned — and part was finishing a two-and-a-half year Montverde career on a high. He achieved both of those goals, and even managed to play like the transcendent talent he is, just in time to cap a legacy that stands as the clear highlight of Montverde Academy’s basketball history.
“I think Ben was here the second half of his sophomore year and he was 62-1 with three national champions at Montverde,” Montverde Academy coach Kevin Boyle said. “That’s tremendous.”