ROBINSON — There's an age-old sports adage about it being difficult to beat a team three times in a season. And yet, that's all the Prestonwood Christian boys basketball team has done lately.
The Lions went unbeaten inTAPPS 1-6A play, winning their final 10 games of the regular season before being dealt rematches with district opponents during each leg of their postseason— topping rivals Bishop Lynch and Trinity Christian-Addison to earn their spot in Saturday's 6A state championship game.
And for all the familiarity between the Lions and fellow state finalist John Paul II,right down to their campuses being all of 10 minutes apart,the same matchup problems that Prestonwood posed against practically every other team on its schedule persisted one final time on Saturday, as the Lions overwhelmed the Cardinals inside en route to a 71-63 victory from Robinson High School — capturing the eighth TAPPS state title in program history.
"From start to finish, it's such a long process. It's great to see these guys jell and come together as a group to reach the pinnacle," said Jeff Clarkson, Prestonwood head coach."I'm proud of these guys for coming together and playing the way they did to finish it out."
The Lions finished out their year at 30-6, a resurgent run for a program that hoisted a state title for the first time since 2017. One of the hallmarks of Prestonwood's basketball dynasty, which included a stretch of seven state titles won over an eight-year span, was an imposing mix of size and length down low, but this year's Lions team even stretched those limits.
Five of the seven players deployed by Prestonwood on Saturday checked in at 6-foot-4 or taller, and the Lions put their towering frames to use on both ends of the floor. Prestonwood's rebounding and ability to generate offense at the rim were the catalysts in the team's third victory over the Cardinals this season.
"We've been an OK outside shooting team, so we know our rebounding is huge and having that size and depth with so many guys who are so long and relentless, it gave us so many extra opportunities,"Clarkson said.
It helped the Lions build a sizable edge in shots attempted on Saturday, with senior Donovan Lovelace, sophomore Francis Chukwudebelu and senior Luke McGary grabbing at least four offensive rebounds apiece in the title game. Lovelace led the team in rebounds with 14 to go along with 15 points, including a pair of put-backs off missed free throws.
"I know that throughout the season that I've struggled sometimes with getting rebounds, so I made a big emphasis on getting as many as I could today and just getting my teammates the ball or getting myself a second shot," Lovelace said."I really had to emphasize that this game."
In fact, four of the Lions' 10 made field goals in the first quarter came on put-backs, helping account for a 10-1 run over the back half of the frame to build a 23-15 lead. They spread the wealth with four different players converting two makes from the field.
It was nothing John Paul hadn't seen before, as the Cardinals attempted to limit post entries and double down low when the ball managed to find its way inside.Head coach Dan Lee, attempting to lead the program to a third state title in four years, lauded his team's first-shot defense on Saturday.
"You want them taking more perimeter shots than inside shots," Lee said."To some degree it worked, but they did get a lot of second and third opportunities and that's what got us."
The Cardinals, meanwhile, pushed the pace plenty, leaning on the trio of junior Bryson McGlothin and sophomores Austin Senters and Cameron Marks — all three of whom were named to the TAPPS 6A all-tournament team. That trio finished in double figures, led by 20 points from Senters, plus 18 from McGlothin and 10 from Marks.
Despite trailing by as many as 11 points in the first quarter, John Paul trimmed the deficit to 29-27 midway through the second quarter. But Prestonwood countered with an 11-0 run to close out the half, including seven straight points from junior Jalen Shelley punctuated by a thunderous poster dunk in transition to help the Lions build a 40-27 lead at the break.
"Our defense and rebounding tends to be a catalyst for the offense. We go on those runs and when these guys get on the fast break, it's pretty fun to watch. Thatbringsa lot of energy to the team,"Clarkson said.
Shelley led the Lions with 17 points, joined by 16 from senior Coco Escheik to go along with Lovelace's aforementioned double-double. All three represented Prestonwood on the all-tournament team.
HALF: Prestonwood 40, John Paul 27OH MY GOODNESS, JALEN SHELLEY!!! The @PCAAthletics star with a sensational dunk late in the quarter during a stretch where he scored 7 straight points! Shelley has 13 points to lead Prestonwood thru 2Qs, while Bryson McGlothin has 13 for JPII. pic.twitter.com/QIdgeZEdYs
Escheik came on strong with 11 of his points scored over the final two quarters to help the Lions keep John Paul at an arm's length. Although a switch by the Cardinals to a zone defense for the second half slowed Prestonwood for stretches, the Lions' rebounding edge persisted. That included a possession midway through the third quarter where the team grabbed four offensive boards before at last cashing in on an Escheik 3-pointer for a 43-30 lead.
Keyed by a 13-point half from Senters, John Paul managed to whittle its deficit down to as close as 56-49 with 5:24 left in the fourth quarter before Prestonwood countered with seven straight points, capped by a finish inside from Chukwudebelu, to put the championship within reach at 63-49 with 2:10 to play.
"The way this team cametogether— afew new guys coming in and some senior leadership and watching themalljell," Clarkson said. "These are guys with so many different talents and watching them jell and become great friends off the court, that's the best part of the coaching process."
Culminating that journey with a championship made it all the more special.
"It feels great. It's what we've wanted all season. This was our goal fromdayone and just the fact that we got it done is crazy," Lovelace said.
State Champs!: Photos from Prestonwood's state title win over rival JPII
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