HIGHLAND — Two summers ago while playing in a tournament back in Boston, Lone Peak’s boys basketball team advanced to the championship game and in the process made a huge impression on East Coasters with its athleticism, crazy shooting ability and team-oriented style of play.
When word got around that most of the players were sophomores and juniors, it didn’t take long for the invitations from various winter tournaments across the country to start pouring in.
All of the sudden the Knights were a hot commodity.
One tournament in particular coach Quincy Lewis couldn’t say no to was the City of Palms Classic in Fort Myers, Fla. It is arguably the best high school basketball tournament in the country, and Lewis jumped at the chance to be part of the 2012 tourney field, committing well over a year ago.
Neither Lewis nor tournament organizers could’ve envisioned that a year later Lone Peak would arrive in Florida as the No. 1 team in the country. Incredibly though, that’s exactly where MaxPreps has the Knights ranked, vaulting them from No. 2 to No. 1 on Monday after the previous top-ranked team lost over the weekend.
No doubt flattered by the rankings, Lewis doesn’t consider Lone Peak the favorite whatsoever at the Palms this week in Florida.
“In state we have the big bull’s-eye. But if you’re from Utah and you’re going out of state, there’s no bull’s-eye, I can tell you that right now,” said Lewis.
With eight of the top 13 teams in the country taking part in the tournament this Wednesday through Saturday — including No. 1 through 5 — it’s hard to classify anyone as the team to beat.
The seven other top-25 teams participating are No. 2 Long Beach Poly (Calif.), No. 3 Chester, Pa., No. 4 Whitney Young (Chicago), No. 5 Southwind (Memphis, Tenn.), No. 10 Paul VI (Fairfax, Va.), No. 12 Tift County (Tifton, Ga.) and No. 13 Omaha Central, Omaha, Neb.
“I’m most looking forward to just playing at a national level. It’s so fun playing against very good teams from all over the country,” said Lone Peak junior T.J. Haws.
Lone Peak opens the tournament Wednesday at 6 p.m. against Mississippi 5A defending state champs, Callaway (Jackson, Miss.). The Chargers were No. 22 in MaxPreps preseason rankings but have fallen out of the rankings following a 6-4 start this year.
“It’s an opportunity. These don’t come around very often, especially for a team in Utah,” said Lewis. “We’re excited for us, but we’re excited to represent our state, ’cause I think we have good basketball here relative to our population.”
Lone Peak is 7-0 heading into the tournament, which includes an 84-46 dismantling of Proviso East at the Chicago Elite Classic on Dec. 1. The Knights were ranked sixth heading into that game, and the ease of that victory opened the eyes of many.
A week later Lone Peak beat Colorado state champion Denver East, 73-54, at the Great Western Shootout at Orem High.
The Knights are averaging 74.6 ppg while limiting opponents to 44.1 ppg. Balance has been the key, with senior Nick Emery averaging 19.9 ppg, senior Erik Mika at 18.3 ppg and Haws close behind at 15.8 ppg. All three are committed to BYU.
“If we’re playing together we’re hard to stop. You just have to take it one game at a time in the tournament,” said Emery.
Last year, Lone Peak took part in the post-Christmas Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach, S.C. It surprised many by beating Whitney Young in double overtime to advance to the championship game. It ran out of gas in the championship, losing to Milton, Ga., 70-42.
If Lone Peak wins a couple games at the Palms, the grind in the last couple days of the tournament will be even tougher.
If Lone Peak beats Callaway on Wednesday, it would play either No. 3 Chester (2-0) or unranked Lake Highland Prep, Fla. (7-1) in the quarterfinals on Thursday. A win there would likely mean a semifinal meeting with No. 5 Southwind or No. 10 Paul VI on Friday.
“It’s one of the best tournaments in the country. We want to represent Utah well and represent how we play here. People don’t realize how good Utah ball is and we really want to make a statement back there,” said Emery. “Not many Utah teams get this opportunity. It’s almost like a blessing.”