Nisine Poplar (above, in Jan.) and MCS are in the Public League championship game for the first time. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Ari Glazier (@AriGlazier)
MCS coach Lonnie Diggs made a note on his phone at 3 AM, the day of his Public League semi-final clash with Imhotep Charter, that he kept staring at for the whole day.
It listed the results of the program’s six semi-final appearances, all of which were losses. Four of those losses, including the previous two seasons, were at the hands of Imhotep.
In fact, Imhotep had won the last three league championships, and was undefeated against MCS dating back to December 8, 2012, a date Diggs rattled off the top of his head.
At the bottom of the note, Diggs wrote in all caps, “2020 IS OUR YEAR.”
For the first three quarters of Tuesday night, it looked like Diggs’ note would have to get the equivalent of getting crumpled up and thrown in the trash, as Imhotep jumped out to a 15-point lead, and led by eight points midway through the fourth. And then, after so many years of falling short, the Mighty Elephants’ fortunes changed.
MCS rallied late, with junior Nisine Poplar making his mark on a game that had been a bit underwhelming for him up to that point. He ran curled off of a Naadhir Wood screen out of a timeout, receiving a toss from Marcus Middleton and drilling an off balance three, to tie the game up with five seconds left.
MCS seized the shifting momentum, and took home a 75-65 victory in overtime.
“Imhotep has been the gold standard of the league for the last decade,” Diggs said. “It’s a program that we strive to be like. To beat them in a game like this, with this type of crowd and atmosphere, it’s huge.”
The hero of the game was Poplar, who only started playing organized basketball two years ago and has become a high-major recruit. Late-game heroics aren’t anything new for the talented guard, who has hit either three or four buzzer beaters this season, depending on whether you ask Poplar himself or Diggs.
“He’s unflappable,” Diggs said of his star junior. “He keeps his composure under any circumstance. We’re confident he can make those shots and he did again today.”
Poplar, who finished the game with 18 points, was understandably swept up in the moment.
“I’m just too happy,” the 6-foot-3 wing said. “I can’t even explain it. I knew it was coming back to me, so I knew it was then or never.”
Imhotep was well aware of the threat Poplar posed offensively, and they responded by implementing a box-and-one defense targeting him, a strategy teams, including Imhotep in their first encounter, have used against Poplar all year.
Poplar was frustrated at times by the notoriously pesky defensive alignment, however he kept his composure, knowing he was waiting for the one shot that would put his team over the edge.
A North Philly native, Poplar grew up playing basketball in rec leagues, but his main focus was baseball, which he still feels may have been his strongest sport. When his manager left, Poplar was left in 8th grade, Poplar was left without a sport, until he joined the MCS program in 10th grade.
Tvon Jones, the leading scorer against Imhotep with 19, grew up playing basketball with Poplar in grade school.
“He’s got heart,” Jones said. “I’ve never seen anything like it...He wasn’t always the main guy, but he always could shoot. So his shot was always there. He was a lanky, scrawny kid that couldn't really do much but shoot.
While it didn’t take much time for Poplar to carve out a space for himself as one of the Pub’s best talents, the transition was not without its growing pains. Poplar was used to a free flowing, iso filled style of basketball. He was taken off guard by the more regimented play calling of high-level high school basketball.
Poplar has made a name for himself with his raw athleticism and vertical. Spectators in the know will stand up and hold their breath when he gets a breakaway opportunity, knowing they are likely to witness a showstopping dunk.
That athleticism and talent has garnered plenty of collegiate interest. Poplar’s received offers from more than a dozen schools, including high-majors like Auburn, Virginia Tech, and Temple. His D-I prospects were the last thing on Poplar’s mind when he began his high school basketball career. In fact, he wasn’t even familiar with the recruiting process.
“I’m happy because I didn’t know about offers in my ninth grade year,” Poplar said. “I thought you just go to any college you want.”
His emergence as a leading playmaker for MCS has also forced Poplar to immerse himself in basketball for the first time. He’s started watching the NBA regularly, gravitating towards LeBron James and whatever team he’s on.
Poplar’s childhood friend, Jones, carried much of the offensive burden, especially during the first half when Poplar was held to only two points, as well as a clutch, five point, three rebound, one block, and one assist overtime.
Jones took advantage of Imhotep’s frontcourt, Kamhron Roundtree and Notre Dame commit Elijah Taylor, facing foul trouble. Taylor fouled out in the fourth quarter, a big reason MCS was able to dominate the extra session.
“Once he gets going, he’s a hard kid to stop,” Diggs said. “Particularly, when their big guys got in foul trouble, he could use his physicality on smaller, younger guys,”
The senior Jones was more than happy to play the role of bully.
“Tenth grade I came in as a dog,” the 6-foot-4 forward said. “Last year I came in, wanted to be more of an offensive threat. But today in this game I had to be a dog. I just had to bring it out of me.”
MCS still has one more roadblock left to win its first-ever Public League championship, in the regular season Public League ‘A’ Division champions, Simon Gratz. During their Pub drought, they've won multiple state championships, including the 2A title just last March.
Diggs’ squad handed Gratz their only loss in league play, another overtime buzzer beater, though at the hands of Marcus Middleton, not Poplar. The rematch is set for Saturday, 7 PM at Temple University’s Liacouras Center.
While there was plenty of celebrating in the Mighty Elephant locker room, Diggs is making sure that his team’s focus lies ahead on the possibility of winning the school’s first ever Pub championship, rather than back on their accomplishment.
“This can’t be our championship,” Diggs said. “This is a big win and a big game, but if we lose on Saturday, this means nothing. So we’ve got to finish the job on Saturday.”
MCS: 8 | 16 | 11 | 24 | 16 | 75
Imhotep: 19 | 19 | 3 | 18 | 6 | 65
MCS: Marcus Middleton 9, Nisine Poplar 18, Tayshon Nixon 5, Tvon Jones 19, Naadhir Wood 13, Nadir Barron 5, Zakee Fleming 5, Jabaar Slaughter 1.
Imhotep: Naji Reid 20, Rahmir Barno 11, Justin Edwards 4, Elijah Taylor 6, Sami Wylie 17, Kamrohn Roundtree 2, Enai White 5.
MCS: 23-51 FG, 5-16 3PT, 24-39 FT
Imhotep: 18-40 FG, 8-19 3PT, 22-31 FT