Last year’s Beach Ball Classic championship was just the beginning for Imhotep Institute Charter School of Philadelphia.
The Panthers haven’t been stopped since.
Imhotep recorded its 37th consecutive win dating back to early last season with a 53-49 win over Bishop Gorman of Las Vegas on Wednesday at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center in one of the marquee matchups of the first round and a rematch of a second round game last year.
The Panthers have every intention of leaving Myrtle Beach with their win streak intact and another Beach Ball title.
“Since I’ve been here, that was our first like national tournament … so it was crazy last year. We came down here and smacked every team and in the championship game we hit a game-winner,” said Imhotep junior wing Chereef Knox, who scored 12 points and hit five of his six shot attempts Wednesday.
“This is to keep our name,” Knox said. “We don’t want to come out here from last year showing we got worse, trying to expose ourselves. We’re trying to keep our name up and actually win games. We didn’t come all the way to South Carolina to lose. We came here to compete and win.”
Imhotep won last year’s game against Bishop Gorman by 18 points en route to the title.
Wednesday’s win was much more difficult.
Bishop Gorman was within a point with 1:08 to play before Knox hit a pair of free throws with 10 seconds remaining and sophomore Elijah Taylor hit one of two free throws with 3 seconds to play to seal the win.
Gorman’s Jamal Bey, a senior who is headed to the University of Washington, missed a three-point attempt off the back of the rim with 5 seconds remaining that would have tied the game.
“They may or may not like us anymore, they gave us back to each other in the first round,” Imhotep coach Andre Noble said of the early matchup with Gorman. “… If you’re going to win Beach Ball you’re going to play some great teams and you’re going to have to play phenomenal. So whether you have to do that three or four games, you’re going to have to do that because the talent is really good.”
Imhotep closed the 2016-17 season with a 30-game win streak and improved to 7-0 this season.
Imhotep lost three Division I players from its Beach Ball and Pennsylvania state championship team. Its two primary starting guards from last year, David Beatty and Daron Russell, are playing at South Carolina and Rhode Island, respectively, and 6-6 wing Koby Thomas is at Robert Morris.
The Panthers are led this season by athletic junior swingmen.
Knox, who is 6-5 and is playing with a facemask to protect a broken nose, 6-5 Dahmir Bishop and 6-7 Donta Scott are all receiving offers from several Division I schools. Offers to Bishop and Scott include many of the Philadelphia area’s strong college programs. Senior guard Bernard Lightsey is also a returning starter from last season.
“The only [wins] that matter for us are the seven that we have in front of our name,” Imhotep coach Andre Noble said. “We really left last year alone. We just refer to last year about the character and chemistry stuff we felt our team had and how hard they played to give our younger guys references. But I told them coming in here we don’t get any points for winning last year. It starts 0-0 every game.”
Imhotep’s win streak includes a title last year at a tournament hosted by the current No. 1 team in the USA Today Super 25, Montverde, which is also at the Beach Ball, and the Panthers defeated Montverde in the title game. Imhotep is also ranked in the top 20 by USA Today.
The game was fast-paced, up-and-down with pressuring defense and close throughout, as there were five ties and four lead changes and neither team led by more than seven points.
Gorman (9-2) scored the opening basket of the second half to take a six-point lead but a 12-0 Imhotep run that featured four points each from Knox and Bishop, including a Bishop dunk over a defender, gave the Panthers a six-point lead. Gorman was able to tie the score but never regained a lead.
“I was waiting for that media timeout and maybe should have called a timeout before that to cut that run,” Gorman coach Grant Rice said, “but if we make a couple free throws to go up six it probably never would have happened.”
Imhotep held a seven-point lead at 48-41 with 3:40 to play following a nice one-handed tip-in by Scott. Gorman scored the next four points including a 3-pointer by Bey to pull within three points with 3 minutes remaining.
Gorman full-court pressure forced five Imhotep turnovers in the final 3:30 and allowed the Gaels to nearly take the lead.
“You always want to win, but we didn’t handle the ball well. Too many turnovers,” Noble said. “We’re a much better basketball team than that. I don’t even recognize that team. We knew their pressure, we worked to handle it. I don’t know what that was.”
A couple missed free throws in the final 1:30 – Gorman was 11 of 19 from the line for the game – kept the Gaels from tying the game or taking the lead and forced them to play catch-up late.
Bey missed a free throw on a possible three-point play and Chance Michels hit one of two to pull Gorman within a point with 1:08 left.
“We didn’t pull it out but I’m really proud of our guys to put in that effort in a tough, tough first round game,” Rice said. “That’s a tough matchup, but we had our chances and if we make some free throws we probably come out with the win there.”
Find more extensive coverage of the Beach Ball Classic at myrtlebeachonline.com.