Wednesday, March 28, 2012 | 2 a.m.
The high school basketball playoffs recently concluded for most teams across the nation. But for Henderson-based Findlay Prep, they are just beginning.
On Thursday, the Pilots (29-1) will play at 5 p.m. against Coolridge Senior High of the Washington, D.C,. area in the quarterfinals of the eight-team ESPN National High School Invitational Championship at Georgetown Prep in Bethesda, Md. The tournament will be televised by the ESPN family of networks, with Thursday’s game on ESPNU — the 14th time Findlay has played on ESPN since April 2009.
It’s the Pilots’ fourth consecutive appearance in the ESPN event, where they claimed the title in 2009 and 2010. Last year, however, they were bounced in the quarterfinals — a fact the players don’t need to be reminded of.
“With me being on both teams, a winning team and losing team, I can tell the signs going in,” said senior forward Wintson Shepard, one of Findlay’s most experienced players who has been a regular in the lineup the past three years. “I will be able to tell the team if we are doing something wrong and just give some advice to avoid losing again. That wasn’t a good feeling.
“We weren’t ready to play. The thing I can do this year is make sure we are ready to play and compete. If we can do that, we will get good results."
Findlay is the tournament’s No. 1 seed, which, if you ask Pilots coach Mike Peck, isn’t all that significant. Each of the tournament’s teams are more than capable of winning three straight games to capture the title, and as Findlay learned in last year’s 70-61 defeat to Dwyer High of Florida, there will be no easy games. Six of the eight teams are ranked in the top 50 by ESPN.
“You play 30 games for the seeding in the tournament and the right to be invited,” Peck said. “Nonetheless, it is a deep tournament and that is a talented field of eight. Nobody is a pushover. When the ball is tipped, everyone is 0-0 and the scoreboard will be at zero. You have to play to win those days.”
Findlay, which is 154-8 in Peck’s five seasons, is ranked No. 2 by ESPN and USA today — behind Oak Hill Academy (44-0), which isn’t part of the tournament — in having one of the best seasons in school history.
They set program highs in field goal percentage, assists, rebounds and free throw percentage in scoring more than 70 points in all but three games. Of the 29 wins, only two have come by single digits.
They’ve done all this despite not playing at full strength all season.
McDonald’s All-American Anthony Bennett, a UNLV recruiting target, missed 19 games while battling a leg injury. Arizona-bound Brandon Ashley, another McDonald’s All-American, missed six games, meaning the Pilots’ two powers on the inside — Bennett is 6-foot-9; Ashley is 6-foot-10 — have limited game experience together.
Another hurdle Findlay has to overcome is Bennett and Ashley playing Wednesday in the McDonald’s game in Chicago and having to catch an early flight Thursday to the ESPN tournament. They’ll have limited time to rest but say the travel is nothing different from what they are accustomed to from years of playing on the competitive AAU circuit.
“This is what AAU prepares you for. You go from one tournament to the next,” Ashley said last week. “It is something I’m almost used to at this point.”
If Findlay wins, it would play in the semifinal at 10:30 Friday on ESPN2. The finals are at 11 a.m. Saturday on ESPN.