Kentucky coach John Calipari flew out to Seattle to see the best big man in the 2021 class – O’Dea’s Paolo Banchero – in action Wednesday.
But it was Eastside Catholic point guard Nolan Hickman who stole a little bit of the thunder.
Again, for a second game this season, Hickman was brilliant against the Irish. This time, he poured in a game-high 36 points, and the top-ranked Crusaders hammered No. 2 O’Dea, 85-62, in the semifinals of the Metro League boys basketball tournament at Seattle Pacific University.
Shane Nowell added 16 points, and J.T. Tuimoloau chipped in with 15 for Eastside Catholic. Banchero was fantastic for the Irish with 31 points, but nobody else was close to double figures in the loss.
Here are three game observations:
NOLAN HICKMAN A ‘COACH’S DREAM’ AS A FLOOR GENERAL, LEAD PLAYMAKER
Hickman said he had no clue Calipari had slipped into the building to watch the game, and did not notice him until the game ended.
“Thirty-six (points) in front of Coach Cal,” he said afterward, still beaming.
“Nobody can guard me in Seattle, I feel like.”
Hickman was virtually unstoppable Wednesday, getting into the lane at will. When he wasn’t doing that, he was hitting fallaway 3-pointers – including one late in the first half that gave the Crusaders a 52-33 cushion.
And Hickman scored nine consecutive points in the first 3:28 of the fourth quarter as the final chapter in this decisive blowout victory.
“t was O’Dea-Eastside Catholic – all those guys are friends,” Eastside Catholic coach Brent Merritt said. “He is going to go at them. He wanted to make a statement. He did. He has been like that all season.”
WHAT MAKES CRUSADERS SO TOUGH IS THEY HAVE A DIFFERENT TRIUMVIRATE OF OFFENSIVE AND DEFENSIVE LEADERS
Hickman, Nowell and Tuimoloau combined for 67 of Eastside Catholic’s 85 points.
More often than not, that is how the scoring load will be distributed on a nightly basis.
Equally as reliable is what seniors Syon Blackman, Grant Hunt and Chika Nduka do on the defensive end, Merritt said.
“I tell them every night, it is not what you are going to do for us offensively,” Merritt said. “When they set the tone, our defense is good.”
In a matchup against a guy of Banchero’s height (6-foot-10) and stature, Nduka is as big a key to the Crusaders’ success as anybody.
Banchero still dominated the game for stretches, especially in the second quarter (scored 18 of the team’s 22 points). But Nduka did enough disruptive things around the basket that the O’Dea star never got anything easy.
“(Nduka) takes the battle every night,” Merritt said. “He is so prideful. Some guys don’t take what happens out there personally. But he takes it personally.”
IS O’DEA PLAYING A LITTLE POSSUM? CRUSADERS KNOW JASON KERR’S TEAM WILL SHOW BEST ON THE BIGGEST STAGE
Merritt does not want to relive last year’s script.
The Crusaders beat O’Dea in the regular season (69-63), only to lose to the Irish in the 3A semifinals (49-41) in the Tacoma Dome.
That is why Merritt won’t fall into the trap of overconfidence after two convincing victories already this season.
“(O’Dea coach) Jason Kerr is a mastermind. He is not going to show you everything in the Metro (tournament),” Merritt said. “He wants to win the state championship.”
You mean the guy that has already won three state titles at Franklin (2003, 2006, 2009), and his first one last year at O’Dea?
“I don’t put anything past him,” Merritt said. “Last year left a terrible taste in our mouth … so we want to beat them every time we see them. But we really want to beat them in the Dome.”