University City

Northside Christian’s basketball program continued to grow with an appearance in Nationals

Five days removed from a 69-60 loss to Oak Hill (Va.) Academy in the quarterfinal round of the Dick’s Sporting Goods High School National Basketball Tournament on April 3, DeSean Murray was asked about playing in front of several current NBA All-Stars.

The 6-foot-5 Presbyterian College commit paused.

“I didn’t really see anyone,” he said.

Then Murray’s coach at Northside Christian Academy, Byron Dinkins, broke in: “When you guys were doing layups at halftime, I thought all of you were staring at (Detroit Pistons forward) Josh Smith, and then everyone ran down the bleachers to catch a glimpse of (Pistons guard) Brandon Jennings,” Dinkins said.

“Oh,” said Murray with a shrug. “I was just focused on the game and was trying to come out with a win. I didn’t know who they were.”

Each year, eight of the best high school basketball teams in the nation are invited to play in the national tournament in New York City. This year was Northside Christian’s first appearance.

The Knights – flown to New York and put up in the Grand Central Westin Hotel by the tournament’s directors after finishing the season 28-1 – were the No. 3 seed among a group of high schools that have been on the national stage for decades.

Both Smith and Jennings – of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons – were at the tournament to support the Knights’ opponent, Oak Hill Academy, where they played their high school ball.

Other notable Oak Hill alumni include the Boston Celtics’ Rajon Rondo and the New York Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony, who were out of town for the quarterfinals.

Murray finished the game – played at Christ the King High School in Middle Village, N.Y., and broadcast live on ESPN – with a team-high 18 points.

Knights guard Keyshawn Woods, a future Charlotte 49er, scored 15 points, and Saint Joseph’s-bound 6-foot-6 forward James Demery added seven points and 10 rebounds.

“We just didn’t shoot the ball well,” said Dinkins of the difference in the game against the seventh-seeded Warriors (41-4). “That’s the simple fact – you’ve got to shoot the ball to win. But they gave an honest effort and they played as hard as they could.”

The Warriors held the Knights to just 33 percent shooting from the field, using superior height and length to consistently bother shots.

“That (height disadvantage) comes when you’re playing teams at that level,” said Dinkins. “They were probably bigger than us at every position, but it was nothing that we haven’t seen before. The teams we’ve beat on the national level were all bigger than us.”

Oak Hill advanced to the championship round of the tournament, played at Madison Square Garden on April 5, where the team fell 71-62 to now two-time defending tournament champions Montverde (Fla.) Academy.

After the Knights’ loss, Woods kept to himself in the locker room.

“The mood in there was bad,” said Woods, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard. “I didn’t talk to nobody after the game. I was just quiet, and everyone else was sorta the same way.”

Dinkins, although saying he was disappointed to not have advanced further in the tournament, offered a different impression of the experience.

“That’s probably the top tournament in high school basketball, and Northside was a part of it,” he said. “Did we win the game? No. But it was still a win for the school, the program, and everyone affiliated with Northside Christian.

“For that moment, people knew who Northside was. My guys played their way into that last group of eight teams still playing in the nation.

“It wasn’t from favors. It wasn’t because someone made 100 calls. It was from what we did all year. That’s the thing that I’m taking away from this experience.”

For Murray, who was too focused to notice the NBA stars surrounding him, the loss and the end of his run with the Knights still stings, but Dinkins said he knows that pain will fade and eventually be replaced by fond memories.

“This group of seniors is very special,” Dinkins said. “I’m going to miss these guys. We are trying to build a program here, and each year something has been added to it. These guys have taken the program to the next level with what they did.

“Right now, they’re disappointed,” said Dinkins, “but when they look back on it five to 10 years from now, they’re going remember how special this season was.”