Championship games aren’t supposed to be easy. The undefeated Rancho Mirage High School boys’ basketball team found that out on Wednesday in the finals of the Design Pro Division of the MaxPreps Holiday Classic.
The Rattlers ran out to an 18-2 lead against Grants High School of New Mexico and felt like this game was going to be like the other four games in the tournament, which the Ratters won by an average of 36 points. Not so.
The pesky visitors with their pressure defense, got back in the game, even taking the lead in the second half, but the Rattlers regrouped, made enough plays down the stretch and earned a hard-fought 74-64 win.
“They had us flustered. When we jumped out to an 18-2 lead we thought we were going to run away with it, and then they came back and they were tough,” said Rancho Mirage senior point guard Tyrell Robinson. “Winning the MaxPreps is pretty big for us and especially coach. I’ve played basketball since I was 6 years old and it’s all about being in games like this.”
It’s the third tournament title for the now 13-0 Rattlers this season, but this was by far their toughest game.
The Pirates used a swarming, relentless full-court trapping press to force turnovers and put the Rattlers back on their heels, throughout the game. When Rancho Mirage handled it well, they were able to get easy baskets, but when they didn’t, Grants got rolling.
In a flash, that 18-2 lead was trimmed to 25-23 late in the second quarter. The Pirates completed the comeback when they took a 42-41 lead on a 3-pointer by AJ Madrid, his only bucket of the game, late in the third quarter. It was the first time all year, the Rattlers had trailed in the second half of a game.
“When they took the lead, you could tell we got a little nervous, and you could tell by our missed shots we were nervous,” Rancho Mirage coach and tournament organizer Rob Hanmer said. “(Grants) played very, very well and never stopped competing, and the mistakes we were making, they were causing. We needed a game like that. We’ve been a little spoiled so far.”
The Rattlers clung to a 47-45 lead entering the final quarter, but the dynamic duo of Daryn Evans and Charles Neal—who earned co-MVPS of the tournament—scored the first six points of the final quarter to open an eight-point cushion. Neal hit from inside, Evans canned a floater and then Evans found Neal with a beautiful pass on a fast-break to make it 53-45.
But as was the case all night, the Pirates didn’t go away, with three minutes left, they cut it to 59-56. That’s when Neal and Robinson put the game out of reach. Neal, who finished with a game-high 36 points, canned a contested 3-pointer to make it 62-56. Then Robinson added a pair of free throws and then the dagger when he outmuscled a pair of Pirates for an offensive rebound and then put it back up and in to give the Rattlers a 10-point lead with 2:08 to go. As his putback fell through the hoop, Robinson pumped his fist in happiness and relief.
“I was kind of frustrated in the beginning, because I wasn’t helping my team much,” said Robinson who scored all 10 of his points after halftime. “But coach told me at the half that I’m a senior and I need to step it up. And I was glad that I was able to come through in the end like that.”
Winning any tournament is great, but the MaxPreps is particularly meaningful to Hanmer who even got a little teary-eyed at the end of the game and during the trophy and T-shirt presentation.
“It’s so much work to do this event, 18-, 20-hour days, so it was more that than the game,” Hanmer said. “But also I think of people like Tyrell who I’ve known since he was born, and games like this will be something he’ll remember for the rest of his life.”
To go with Neal’s 36, the Rattlers got 12 points from Matt Barajas-Tiedeman who battled leg cramps in the second half, and 10 from Robinson. Neal and Evans were named Co-MVPs of the tournament, and Robinson, Barajas-Tiedeman and Koby Alvarez made the All-Tournament Team.
“In some games at the end of the day it just comes down to having the best guy on the floor, and that’s Charles,” Hanmer said.
Grants, N.M., now 9-2 on the year, was paced by Richie Lucero with 24 points. Gregory Harris added 13 and Matt Vail had eight. Lucero, Vail and Mike Chambers made the All-Tournament Team.
MAXPREPS HOLIDAY CLASSIC CHAMPIONSHIP GAMES
Open division: Chino Hills 96, Redondo Beach 80
Nike Tournament: Santa Monica 53, Mercer Island (Wash.) 43
Design Pro: Rancho Mirage 74, Grants, N.M. 64
Goody’s Cafe: Downey 51, Capistrano Valley 34
IHOOP Gear: Beckman 71, Santiago 63
Gatorade Division: St. John Bosco 57, Harvard Westlake 50
Ford Dealers Division: Damien 74, Villa Park 60
Marriot Division: Palo Verde Valley 79, Academy for Academic Excellence 71
Desert Christian Academy Division: Xavier Prep 72, Sutter Union 52
Gear to the Max Girls: San Dimas 35, Coachella valley 29
MaxPreps Girls: Woodinville vs. Marymount, late