By Tom Robinson and Ben Magnotta, NEPAElite.com
SCRANTON – Taking on the best competition they could find, the NEPA Elite Coyle 17U boys team opened the season by going 2-2 while hosting the third annual KYDA Invitational, presented by Top Tier Events.
The Coyle team faced major sneaker company-sponsored teams that included several players who dot the rankings of top men’s basketball recruits nationally from the high school Class of 2024. Its only losses came against two of the three teams to go unbeaten in the 17U Division on the weekend, falling by three points Saturday and remaining within six points into the final 2½ minutes against the top team from the New York Rens club, which was the most successful across all age groups of the AAU event.
When the schedule is put together for KYDA, NEPA Elite welcomes the challenge of facing some of the nation’s top AAU teams.
Coach Brian Coyle said the fourth-year team showed it is meeting the goals originally discussed with club founders Kevin Clark and Jason O’Malley, who are among the owners at Riverfront Sports in Scranton where the teams train.
“This is a combination of the three of us and our feeling on NEPA Elite,” Coyle said. “We will play anybody, any place, any time.
“We want to play the nation’s best. That’s been our motto from Day One and nothing has changed from four years ago when we sat and talked about everything.”
Coyle said he knows that leads to situations like this weekend when his team is facing bigger teams with multiple players on their way to major college programs.
“We feel that with our coaching and the toughness of our players, this is something that we want to do,” he said.
Coyle has been happy with the in-season progress of the team during the first three years. By playing competitively with that opening schedule – the Coyle team outscored its opposition overall for the four weekend games – the coach said the team showed earlier that it is ready for the remainder of its AAU schedule.
“It’s been three or four years in the making,” Coyle said. “Against arguably the toughest teams in the nation, I’m very happy, very excited with the way we competed.
“With the guys who we have in the gym the last three years and the way they worked and, with some additions coming in, we’re playing at an all-time high level.
“We are way farther than we were in years past.”
The four NEPA Elite teams had gone 6-3 Saturday when the KYDA Invitational opened, but the Coyle team had the only win Sunday when the club went 1-6 to finish the first weekend with a 7-9 record.
A look at how each team did in Sunday’s games:
NEPA Elite 17U Coyle
A defense that forced seven first-quarter turnovers, a collective effort that created another rebounding advantage over a bigger opponent and an offense that had seven players score at least seven points were all on display as NEPA Elite won the last of nearly 150 games played in the KYDA Invitational.
NEPA Elite downed the New York Gauchos, 81-75, as action wrapped up with one last afternoon game at the University of Scranton’s John Long Center.
The early defensive effort allowed NEPA Elite to open leads of 20-13 after one quarter and 38-25 at halftime.
Chris Cornish scored 15 points and grabbed a game-high 5 rebounds, including 4 on the defensive end as NEPA Elite limited the bigger Gauchos to 4 offensive rebounds on the game while winning the battle on the boards, 31-27.
“I’m very prideful on rebounding,” Coyle said. “It’s something that we do almost every day in practice. We understand that rebounding isn’t a one-person job; it’s a team job; it’s an effort job.
“I was really happy with the way we boxed out all weekend. We were outsized, outmatched, all weekend, but we stuck to our fundamentals in how we boxed out, tagging, stopping their forward momentum and then really pursuing the ball. I thought that showed. There were possessions during the weekend that we had all five guys locking in and boxing out and after a while, it wears down on a team.”
NEPA Elite finished the weekend with advantages of 45-31 in offensive rebounds and 150-126 in total rebounds.
“For how undersized and overmatched we were, we had a really good rebounding ratio,” Coyle said.
Cornish went 6-for-9 from the floor, including momentum-boosting dunks, to lead the offense, but he had plenty of support.
Mason Fedor and Ryan Nealon scored 13 points each.
Will Marion went 9-for-12 from the line to finish with 12 points while leading the team with four assists and making two steals.
Connor Cranage scored eight points while Oliver Almonte and Drew Erickson added seven each. Almonte also led the defense with five steals and two blocked shots.
Erickson had four points and Ricky Vinansky, who made both his shots while adding five points, hit a 3-pointer during a 13-1 run to the game’s biggest lead, 35-17, with two minutes left in the half.
The Gauchos finished the half strong and opened the second half with a Nas Rodriguez three-point play to cut the deficit to 38-28.
Marion then helped create the first of two 17-point, third-quarter leads by scoring the next five points on the foul line. Cranage hit an 18-foot baseline jumper for a 45-28 lead and a Cornish dunk made it 47-30.
Foul shooting was a factor in the game as the teams combined to go to the line 61 times. NEPA Elite was 26-for-40 while the Gauchos were 15-for-21.
The Gauchos made things interesting late.
A.J. Rodriguez scored 16 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter when he made his first five shots from the floor, three of them from 3-point range in less than a minute, and his first three free throws.
The last Rodriguez 3-pointer with 43 seconds left brought the deficit to 78-75.
NEPA Elite forced a turnover with 18.1 seconds left and Marion went 3-for-4 from the line in the last 13.1 seconds to secure the win. When he missed the second foul shot on his first trip, he caught the defense napping with the rebound to get the last two free throws.
Earlier in the day, Qingfang Pang made 9 of his first 10 shots while scoring 25 points and grabbing 6 rebounds to lead the New York Rens 17U EYBL team to a 64-51 victory over NEPA Elite.
Pang, a 6-foot-9 forward from Christ the King in New York, has multiple Power Five Conference scholarship offers. He had 11 points in the first quarter without missing a shot, but NEPA Elite still remained within, 19-18.
Marion’s deep 3-pointer with 22 seconds left in the quarter gave NEPA Elite its only lead, but Pang quickly put the Rens back in front to stay.
Fedor led NEPA Elite with 16 points while Marion added 12 and Cornish had 10. Fedor, who shot 59 percent overall, led the team for the weekend with 61 points (15.3 per game) while Cornish had 60.
Erickson grabbed 10 rebounds while Cornish and Almonte had seven each to key a 40-25 rebounding advantage. Erickson had a team-high 28 rebounds in the four games while Cornish added 21 and Fedor had 21.
Cornish is a Charlotte, Fla. player with Lackawanna County ties. The 6-foot-6 junior, who produced 17 straight double-doubles on the way to area Player of the Year honors in Florida, received his first National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I scholarship offer this weekend from Manhattan.
Fedor, Marion and Nealon are teammates at Abington Heights.
Erickson is from Seton Catholic in Binghamton, N.Y.; Almonte from Scranton High School; Vinansky is from Mid Valley and Cranage is from Blue Ridge.
NEPA Elite Frank 17U
NEPA Elite dropped two Sunday games to finish the weekend 2-2.
The losses were 76-66 to PPA Elite Adidas Gold at Riverfront in a Pool B game, then 59-54 to Rising Stars of New York in a Pool A/B game at the University of Scranton’s Byron Recreation Complex.
Jacob Brandly made five 3-pointers to lead Rising Stars.
Gene Curtin made three 3-pointers while leading NEPA Elite with 15 points in the loss. Daniel Santaniello added 13 points.
Curtin made his 3-pointers while scoring 11 points to help NEPA Elite to a 26-23 halftime lead.
Curtin is from Abington Heights and Santaniello is from Scranton Prep.
NEPA Elite 16U Tillery
NEPA Elite lost its only game of the day, 60-52, to Rising Stars of New York after winning two out of three games Saturday.
Rising Stars used second-half streaks of 7 and 10 points to break open a one-point game.
Christian Smiley led the winners with 18 points.
Mario Matrone scored 12 points and Jaheem Roberts added 11 in the win.
Robby Lucas had two 3-pointers in the first three minutes, but then left the game with an injury.
Matrone is from Holy Cross, Roberts from Scranton and Lucas from Abington Heights.
NEPA Elite 15U Dempsey
NEPA Elite dropped both games to finish 1-3 for the KYDA Invitational.
The New York Rens Blue completed a dominant 4-0 run through the 15U Division, handling NEPA Elite, 54-30, in the morning at Riverfront.
NEPA Elite also lost, 54-52, to the New York Gauchos.
Rashad Robinson Jr. scored 19 points and Jacob Canton 12 for the Rens, who scored 18 straight points on the way to a 29-8 halftime lead.
Nate Aviles led NEPA Elite with eight points.
The Gauchos pulled out a win over NEPA Elite despite seven 3-pointers by Jordan Shaffer.
Shaffer is from Abington Heights and Aviles from Dunmore.
Saturday’s recap of NEPA Elite results: ROUNDUP: All NEPA Elite boys teams win on Opening Day – NEPA Elite Basketball.