Despite being ranked No. 10 in the USA TODAY Super 25 and having valuable experience in the Culligan City of Palms Classic, Powder Springs (Georgia) McEachern High School was at best considered the fourth-best team in the tournament. Sharife Cooper defied those odds when he was on the floor and his teammates even showed they were pretty good without him.
Cooper shredded a Philadelphia Imhotep defense that owned two top-20 teams the previous two nights up and down the floor, going off for 20 points while teammate Isaac Okoro and company held down the fort when Cooper got in foul trouble during a 68-47 victory in the City of Palms championship game on Saturday.
The tournament went 10 years from 2004 to 2014 without a public school taking home the crown. Now, three of the last five winners – Wheeler (Georgia) in 2014, Chino Hills (California) in 2015 and now McEachern – have been public school champs.
“Coming into this tournament, you already know the history off of social media everywhere. You know all these players who played here,” said Cooper, who earned tournament MVP honors. “It’s kind of surreal right now. But I feel like I’m going to feel it later because I don’t really feel it right now.”
It wasn’t the final many expected with Imhotep and Birmingham (Alabama) Mountain Brook upsetting two of the top-four teams in the country on a wild quarterfinal Thursday. Imhotep held off a late surge by No. 4 Fort Lauderdale University School for a 57-54 win and Mountain Brook slowed the game down against a No. 2 Bradenton IMG Academy team with starting lineup full of Division I recruits for a 72-67 win.
Imhotep (7-1) wasn’t done, though. The Panthers turned in one of the most dominant defensive performances of the tournament in a 70-60 upset of No. 3 Mouth of Wilson (Virginia) Oak Hill Academy in a Friday semifinal.
The Panthers defense, which held Mountain Brook and Oak Hill to 30 percent shooting the last two nights, faced its toughest matchup yet against Cooper, who flew by full-court pressure on possession after possession.
“Sharife Cooper is a special talent,” Imhotep coach Andre Noble said. “He made it really difficult for us to keep him in front. And then he started making plays for other folks.”
Imhotep’s inability to recreate the defensive intensity against Oak Hill and Mountain Brook frustrated the coach as McEachern (8-0) shot nearly 66 percent from the field and 9-for-9 in the fourth quarter.
“When we’re good that’s what we do,” Noble said. “That’s why tonight’s so frustrating.”
Cooper’s speed allowed Imhotep little time to set its defense as McEachern built a double-digit lead early in the second quarter. Finishing the half with 10 points and two assists, the 6-foot-1 guard got to the rim on back-to-back possessions with under 20 seconds remaining. With seven seconds remaining he avoided a double team at half court and floated a shot through the net at the buzzer to make it 36-23.
The top-25 junior in the country, however, picked up his third and fourth fouls in short order early in the third with his team up 13.
Enter senior guard Isaac Okoro who shouldered the workload in Cooper’s absence for nearly seven minutes. Okoro stuffed the state sheet with 18 points on a perfect shooting night with eight assists and six rebounds.
“Everybody knows he handles the ball mostly on our team,” said Okoro, who made the all-tournament team, of Cooper. “Once he picked up his fourth foul I know I had to start handling the ball and creating more for our team so we won’t lose the lead.”
Donta Scott, an all-tournament selection, led Imhotep with 15 points.
When Cooper returned to the court at the start of the fourth McEachern led 47-36. The Indians went on to outscore Imhotep 21-11 in the final period.
“Offensively, it wasn’t really nothing,” Cooper said. “We always say it’s about us and not about the other team. When we just play our game things will fall our way.”
Sharife Cooper, Powder Springs (Georgia) McEachern
Cole Anthony, Mouth of Wilson (Virginia) Oak Hill Academy
Armando Bacot, Bradenton IMG Academy
Vernon Carey Jr., Fort Lauderdale University School
Cam’ron Fletcher, St. Louis Vashon
Joseph Girard III, Glenn Falls (New York)
Elijah Hutchins-Everett, Montclair (New Jersey) Immaculate Conception
D.J. Jeffries, Olive Branch (Mississippi)
Jarod Jones, Powder Springs (Georgia) McEachern
Makhi Mitchell, Washington D.C. Woodrow Wilson
Isaac Okoro, Powder Springs (Georgia) McEachern
Khalil Robinson, West Columbia (South Carolina) Gray Collegiate
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Bradenton IMG Academy
Donta Scott, Philadelphia Imhotep
Trendon Watford, Birmingham (Alabama) Mountain Brook
Malachi Wideman, Sarasota Riverview