Michael Smerconish: An eerie Palestra preview

Posted: March 26, 2009

MOST Philadelphians, basketball junkies or otherwise, recognize the history of the Palestra, home to the storied Big Five.

The Cathedral of College Basketball has hosted more college basketball games than any other venue in the country. The list of those who have played on its court reads like a Hall of Fame roster - from Wilt Chamberlain to Julius Erving to Kobe Bryant.

Many think of Palestra lore as part of a bygone era, but a game just three years ago between Episcopal Academy and Oak Hill belongs among the most memorable in the venue's 82-year history - especially in light of how this year's Sweet 16 has shaped up.

"You're going to go home next year and turn the TV on and see five or six of these guys on the court in the NCAA's." Episcopal Academy men's basketball coach Dan Dougherty said on Jan. 29, 2006. His team had just lost, 64-56, to the best high-school team in the country, Virginia's Oak Hill Academy.

Dougherty was right. For starters: Gerald Henderson (19 points, seven assists, six rebounds) and Wayne Ellington (game-high 23 points) suited up for the Churchmen of Episcopal that day. An incredible tandem on the court and a close-knit one off it, Henderson and Ellington were headed for high- profile careers on Tobacco Road.  

Henderson and the Duke Blue Devils will square off against Villanova tonight. Ellington and the Tar Heels of North Carolina will play Gonzaga in Memphis tomorrow night.  

The game was unusually close for national powerhouse Oak Hill. The Warriors were 28-0 before their trip to the Palestra. Their average margin of victory was 35 points. Among those 28 games, only two had been decided by fewer than 18 points, and Oak Hill played both without the team's best player.

That would be Ty Lawson, the newly crowned 2009 player of the year in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Lawson managed 20 points despite spending much of the game against Episcopal in foul trouble. In fact, his absence set up perhaps the most memorable - and infamous - sequence in the game.  

Leading by six points with around six minutes left, Oak Hill crossed half court with the ball. When Episcopal - content to pack its 2-3 zone defense in the lane - didn't challenge the ball, an Oak Hill guard simply waited at half court. And waited. And waited.

Soon, Episcopal fans grew restless and began chanting, "Overrated." My 7-year-old son turned and asked why nothing was happening.

It was a question I posed to Oak Hill head coach Steve Smith on my radio program a few days later. "My intentions obviously were never to hold the basketball," Coach Smith told me. He had planned to keep Lawson on the bench until four minutes remained. When Episcopal continued to sit back, Coach Smith decided to wait it out.

"I mean, if they had come after us a little bit like they'd been doing, even in their zone, we would have kept playing," he told me. "I look at winning the game, and I felt like we were struggling a little bit. That's probably as poorly as we played all year, and we still won against a very good team, and Ty was in foul trouble the whole game."

Finally, with just under four minutes left, Oak Hill took a timeout. Lawson entered the game. More than two minutes had passed with barely a movement on the court. The player who'd been holding the ball that whole time? Nolan Smith, son of ex-76er Derek Smith - now Henderson's teammate at Duke.

Two Blue Devils and two Tar Heels on the court at the same time. Three years later, they're all playing for a shot at the Elite Eight. No wonder it seems less like a regular-season high-school game and more like an ACC Tournament matchup - which would explain why UNC head coach Roy Williams was in the stands for the game.

ANOTHER detail from the moment play resumed: After patiently running the clock to get Lawson back in the game, an Oak Hiller took what had to be an ill-advised, contested jumper. He shot it, he later told Smith, because the guy defending him told him to.

The shooter? Michael Beasley. But you won't find him in the Sweet 16. His team, the Miami Heat, is scheduled to play the Chicago Bulls at the United Center tonight. *

Listen to Michael Smerconish weekdays 5-9 a.m. on the Big Talker, 1210/AM. Contact him via the Web at www.mastalk.com.

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