Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
George School’s first basketball title wasn’t going to come easy.
The Cougars had been among the favorites for the 2023 Friends’ Schools League title all year long, taking out eight-time defending champs Westtown by 31 in the semifinals, proof they were ready to finally bring some hardwood back to Newtown.
But even though Ben Luber’s bunch was on paper the clear pick in Friday night’s championship game against Academy New Church, boasting a significant edge in the frontcourt and a 23-point win over the Lions in the regular season, the Cougars knew that Kevin Givens was sure to have his squad as ready as possible, ANC so often giving Westtown major scares during the Moose’s recent run of dominance.
“We were expecting a dog fight,” George School junior Christian Bliss said, “[and] that’s what we got.”
But Bliss and Kachi Nzeh were too good, the pair of future high-major Division I ballplayers each putting up big numbers and making clutch plays down the stretch as George School finally got the celebration it had been aiming for the last three years, beating ANC 64-61 at La Salle University’s Tom Gola Arena on Friday night.
The outcome wasn’t decided until the final buzzer, which only came after Bliss split a pair at the line with 5.8 seconds left. ANC got the ball upcourt, but junior guard Bahsil Laster had to take a rushed, off-balance 3 from beyond NBA range, which clanked harmlessly off the side of the rim and into Nzeh’s hands, the celebration taking place all over the court.
“It feels great, man,” said Nzeh, the Xavier-bound forward and Upper Darby native who’s in his third year at the Newtown boarding school. “It’s been a long journey, we’ve worked hard, we stuck with it through the ups and downs, and wanted to finish it off right. It feels great to finally be champions, to make history at George School. I’m happy, we’re happy.”
Nzeh was a monster on the glass and around the rim, coming away with an 18-point, 18-rebound double-double, with six offensive boards, nobody on the ANC roster able to compete with the 6-9 forward, who was also a track standout before coming to George.
Bliss carried the George School offensive for long stretches, finishing with 39 points on 13-of-23 shooting (5-7 3PT, 8-11 FT) in a dominant offensive performance. The 6-3 guard showed off his fantastic body control in mid-air, hitting all sorts of tough mid-range pull-ups, plus step-back and side-step 3-pointers, very few of his shots wide open.
Christian Bliss (above) was 13-of-23 from the floor to get to 39 points. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“I came into the game just wanting to win, by any means necessary,” he said. “I thought it was going to take a triple-double today, that was my goal coming in, to get a W and by doing that, I think I’d need a triple double [...] I don’t know how close I got to it, but I think it was more of a scoring game for me rather than an assist game.”
While those two shined for George, ANC got terrific performances from senior guard Deywilk Tavarez (22 points, 11 rebounds), senior wing Jarell Keel (17 points, six rebounds, three steals) and Laster (15 points, 7 rebounds, 3 steals), who prevented George from ever taking anything close to a commanding lead.
“They came in with a game plan to pack the paint, they wanted to take us bigs away from the game,” Nzeh said. “They came with a game plan, they packed the paint, help-side defense was amazing for them, they definitely made it difficult for our bigs,
The Cougars led 34-28 at the break but it was a 46-46 game going into the fourth. George got a little bit of separation with under six minutes to play, an Nzeh driving bucket and then a triple from Bliss putting them up 55-47, though Tavarez scored four straight to cut the lead in half; when a Nzeh alley-oop layup with under two minutes left had the lead back at seven, a Tavarez triple got it right back down to four.
Even when the lead once again got back to six, 63-57 with 16.1s left, ANC wasn’t done, getting two Laster foul shots and then a Laster layup after Nzeh missed the front end of a 1-and-1 to get within two with 7.7 seconds left, setting up Bliss’ final trip to the line.
That it took until the end was no surprise to anybody who's watched Givens’ Lions give much more talented Westtown teams fits on that same court over the last few years, though their own championship drought reached 13 seasons, and 14 years.
“We had to work for it, and it’s a championship, you should have to work for a championship and it’s just part of our kids’ story,” Luber said. “I told them they’ll remember this forever because they’re leaving here as champions, we’ll remember one another, how we did it.
“It hasn’t been an easy path for our seniors, who lost a year with COVID. To end it this way with these kinda kids, I’m just so happy for them.”
Though the Cougars will undoubtedly celebrate their championship, the season is not yet over, and there’s another trophy to be won.
George School will likely enter the PAISAA tournament as one of its top seeds, competing with the best of the Inter-Ac as well as Westtown, ANC, Hill, Perkiomen, Phelps and more for the state’s independent school title.
“We’ve got a state championship we want to win and that’s not out of our sight, we’re going to prepare for that,” Bliss said. “After my visit tomorrow to Virginia, I’m definitely back in the gym on Sunday and getting locked in on the team and the state championship.”
GS: 15 | 19 | 12 | 18 || 64
ANC: 16 | 12 | 18 | 15 || 61
GS: 23-50 FG (5-14 3PT), 13-21 FT
ANC: 20-54 FG (5-14 3PT), 16-22 FT
GS: Christian Bliss 39, Kachi Nzeh 18, Carson Mastin 5, Luke Bevilacqua 2
ANC: Deywilk Tavarez 22, Jarell Keel 17, Bahsil Laster 15, Nolan Waldon 5, Trey Medley 2