Math, Civics & Sciences players and coaches celebrate after the Mighty Elephants won their first-ever Public League championship. (Photo: Mitchell Gladstone/CoBL)
Mitchell Gladstone (@mpgladstone13)
Nisine Poplar came to North Philly miffed.
Math, Civics and Sciences’ junior star, who didn’t even play organized basketball until last season, wasn’t named Public League MVP Friday, as top billing instead went to Simon Gratz’s Yassir Stover.
That Poplar — also a first-team All-Public League honoree after averaging close to 20 points per game — missed out on MVP came as a surpise to some, including MCS coach Lonnie Diggs.
But by the time Poplar and the Mighty Elephants left Temple’s campus Saturday night, they had in hand what they really craved: a first Public League championship in school history.
MCS turned on the jets late, pulling away from Simon Gratz with a 12-6 fourth-quarter surge, to take down the Bulldogs and capture the 2020 Public League title with a 73-68 win at the Liacouras Center. Poplar made the most of a head-to-head matchup with Stover, outscoring the Gratz senior 23-16 and earning game MVP honors.
And in the process, Poplar also surpassed 1,000 career points — something that might’ve seemed far-fetched two years ago at this time, but is now just part of the process for a kid that already has offers from high-major programs like Auburn, Virginia Tech, Virginia Commonwealth and Temple.
“[Not getting Public League MVP is] something he’s been amped about all week,” Diggs said of Poplar. “He feels like he’s the best player in the city and definitely the Public League, and he wanted to make a statement today.
There was no question who was going to kickstart the Mighty Elephants in the opening minutes. Poplar knocked down a pair of 3-pointers in the first quarter as MCS jumped out to a 24-17 advantage, setting the tone for what appeared to be a high-paced affair.
But with legendary alum Rasheed Wallace in the stands and Wallace’s former teammate, Lynard Stewart, on the sidelines, Gratz wasn’t going to let things get away early.
The Bulldogs — who used just six players all game — limited the Mighty Elephants to nine second-quarter points on 3-of-12 shooting, and Gratz pulled within one at 33-32 entering the break.
Yet MCS felt like it had the horses to ultimately seize control.
“On a bigger court, we were the deeper team,” Diggs said. “We felt like with our nine-man rotation, we could wear them down and I think that did play a factor in the game.”
And no player was more successful at taking advantage of a tired group of Bulldogs than Poplar. Although he only scored 12 of his 23 points in the final 16 minutes, he was efficient, knocking down 6-of-7 at the charity stripe, and added seven of his 10 rebounds.
“We just came out with different energy [in the fourth quarter,]” Poplar said. “We wanted to win, and we just locked up.”
Certainly, however, it took more than just Poplar to pull away. Up 53-52 with a little more than four minutes to play, the Mighty Elephants went on a 12-6 run to grab the largest lead of the night for either team.
That surge featured several key rebounds from senior Naadhir Wood, who wound up with a game-high 12 boards, as well as a massive old-fashioned 3-point play from classmate Tvon Jones to cap the run and put MCS up seven with 1:44 to play.
But Wood couldn’t go without praise for Poplar.
“He’s going to the league,” Wood said of the junior. “It’s just natural. It’s just him.”
For these Mighty Elephants seniors, finally winning the Public League title meant even more. Despite winning the 2019 PIAA Class 2A state crown and plenty of success in years past, MCS had never made a Pub championship game before this year.
Wood, however, didn’t get to experience that success. After playing his first three years at West Catholic, the big man transferred in to join the Mighty Elephants this season.
So finally putting that piece of net behind his ear Saturday made for a different but equally special feeling for Wood.
“I’m speechless,” Wood said. “Everybody wanted to win, everybody wanted to make sure I got touches — it’s just like a family.”
With Poplar already holding the game MVP trophy, the Liacouras Center public address announcer told the crowd that the junior had surpassed the century mark during Saturday’s game.
Promptly, Poplar was mobbed by his MCS teammates, with calls of 1K coming from those on the court as Poplar talked with reporters afterward.
“I was supposed to be the real MVP of the [Public League] but I got robbed,” Poplar said. “So, I had to come back with a chip.”
Of course, it’s not the only title the Mighty Elephants want this season. They’ll enter the Class 2A state playoffs March 7 as the top seed from District 12, and MCS should be the favorite to go back-to-back.
But with a two-week layoff and equally stiff competition ahead, there’s plenty of work still to be done in the season’s final month.
“This was one of our goals this year,” Diggs said. “But it’s not our end goal.”
MCS: 24 | 9 | 13 | 27 | 73
Simon Gratz: 17 | 15 | 13 | 23 | 68
MCS: 25-53 FG, 6-9 3PT, 17-23 FT
Simon Gratz: 31-63 FG, 2-13 3PT, 4-8 FT
MCS: Poplar 23, Jones 18, Middleton 10, Wood 10, Fleming 6, Nixon 6
Simon Gratz: Rowell 21, Stover 16, Carter 12, Harris 9, Gordon 8, Satchell