Jared Leveson (@jared_leveson)
NEWTOWN — Kachi Nzeh had heard that the George School Athletic center rims were talking smack.
The Xavier commit punished the rims and the Phelps School, throwing down vicious slams off alley-oops from Dante Weise (St. Rose) and Christian Bliss like he was fooling around.
But flying through the air and making the crowd go wild with highlight plays isn’t new to the former track star who first dunked back in the 7th grade.
“It feels great knowing that you are probably the most athletic player on your team,” he said, smirking. “I am an athletic big man, so I’m kinda used to it at this point. My head reaches the rim every time I jump, so just using that to my advantage.
“The rim was talking to me a little bit, he was saying some stuff. But I just want to punish whoever is down there. They can't guard me. I just wanted to attack the rim as hard as I could. I know when I can do that, nobody could stop me.”
No. 3 Phelps School had no answers for Nzeh and No. 2 George in the Cougars’ 80-56 win Friday. The senior forward played his best basketball all season in the PAISSA semi-finals. He flew above the rim, locked down the paint, and dominated the glass in a 38-point, 15-rebound (6 offensive) double-double performance
George School senior Kachi Nzeh scored 38 points in a semifinal win over Phelps on Friday. (Photo: Jared Leveson/CoBL)
But it wasn’t all on head coach Ben Luber’s stalwart player. Along with strong team play and the crowd’s support, Phelps never got settled. George made big plays on both ends of the floor and advanced to the PAISSA finals against No.1 Perkiomen School after defeating Phelps 80-56 on Friday night.
“Coach describes me as an energy player,” Nzeh said. “I just wanted to bring energy to the team today and get the job done and that's what I did today.”
The senior got the gym rocking with a series of alley-oop dunks and put-back slams early on. He also showcased his ability to knock down the 3-ball and put together a couple of lay-ups off the dribble, utilizing a jab step to create space. He even finished with his left hand a few times.
“He’s special,” the senior guard, Weise, said. “He’s gotten so much better this year as a player, and he’s a great kid. I'm going to miss playing with him a lot. It's fun when you just throw the ball wherever up there, and he’s going to go up and get it.”
“(Our) lobs are just natural,” Nzeh added. “(Weise is) a great passer, and he always knows where to hit me. I always tell him to throw it wherever, but he manages to throw it at the perfect spot for me.”
George defeated Phelps 70-63 earlier this season, back in December. When Luber rewatched the game film, he noticed gaps in Phelps’ defensive back-line, freeing up opportunities for an aerial assault of the rim. George executed their offense all night.
“We try to attack those spots,” Luber said. “We just made some adjustments to attack the openings. It just so happened we have a guy who can go up and get it in those areas.
“I was hoping for that kind of result, as far as the energy is concerned at home. We try to set the tone with (the alley-oops), attacking, bringing the energy. We were home (and tried) to take advantage of that. We had a few plays early where we capitalized on it and so once that happened, I kinda knew things were gonna go in the right direction.”
But the play that Nzeh made that truly set the tone and galvanized his teammates was when Phelps’ Malcolm Wrisby-Jefferson (Brown) poked the ball loose out of Nzeh’s hands on the low block late in the first quarter.
The Xavier commit fully extended for the rock but fell short as Phelps’ IV Pettit scooped it up. George prevented the turnover from becoming points for Phelps. Still, Luber used that moment to light a fire under his team during halftime.
“This game start to finish, (Nzeh) wasn't losing,” Luber said. “He’s made me very proud in that sense that he’s got pride in George School. I can see it. We talked about it in the locker room. 'We'll see who dives on the floor first for a loose ball, we’ll see on our team who really wants to win, (and) do something different tonight.’
“Kachi necessarily isnt a guy to dive on the floor, and I really don't want him to because he could get hurt, but a ball rolled free and he dove on the floor. I told our team at halftime, ‘[If] Kachi’s doing that, you follow the leader.’ I thought like we followed the leader tonight.”
Bliss got the message and was in lockstep with Nzeh all night and put together another solid postseason performance.
The junior guard followed up his 25 point performance against Malvern Prep in their quarterfinal contest with 21 points, three rebounds, two assists, one steal, and one block against Phelps.
The Queens (N.Y.) native got to his spots on the floor. He pulled some crafty moves around the rim from out of his bag and hit from mid-range and behind the arc.
“He made guys around him better,” Luber said. “He’s become a better point guard. He leads our team to win before he puts himself first. He can score at a high level. He knows how to defend. He knows how to win.
“I played his position and he does some things you can't teach. He puts on a show out there, sometimes too much, but I live with it because I love it.”
Luber’s team this year is composed of “underdogs.”
Two of his biggest ones are Bliss and Nzeh. Bliss didn’t start on his EYBL New York Rens team when Luber first watched him play.
Nzeh didn’t take basketball seriously until his sophomore year, but has been one of the foundation stones of George’s program since Luber took the helm in 2019.
“Once I met him,” Luber said. “He looked me in my eyes and he was like ‘I want this opportunity, I want to be great, I’ll show up, I'll listen.’ I took to that, I took it as a challenge because he could run at an olympic level and for a basketball player at that size, and with the work ethic. He’s a sponge. We watch film and he would pick things up so quickly [and] put it to practice. To see it all come together has been special.
George School is peaking at the right time, but it’s no surprise to Luber.
“We’ve gone through our ups and downs,” he said. “But that's what’s good about this team, they are not front runners for one another, they don't quit on one another, and they know their teammates aren't going to quit on them. We’ve gotten to this point now where we’re at our strongest point going into the state championship game; that's what every coach dreams of, and we’re healthy.
“Kachi is playing his best basketball, Christian is playing his best basketball, the team is a cohesive unit right now and I'm excited for sunday. Perkiomen is a great team, but we talked all year about what we’re capable of doing and getting better and better and I think we’re at that point now where it's our final test and it’s a great one.”
Nzeh’s already fixated on Sunday’s state final. He’s not yet letting the emotions surrounding his final high school game emerge.
“I’m just focused on Sunday,” he said. “After that [I’ll] cry a little bit. I'll miss all my guys, but for right now (the) job’s not done.”
Phelps: 12 | 15 | 15 | 14 || 56
George: 24 | 15 | 22 | 19 || 80
Phelps: Pettit 14, Riley 10, Houser 9, Payne 7, Wrisby-Jefferson 7, Gunther 4, Doty 3, Bell 2
George: Nzeh 38, Bliss 21, Bevilacqua 9, Weise 7, Mastin 3, Melniczak 2