Posted On: 07/22/19 5:10 PM
The Nike Peach Jam is widely regarded as the best tournament in the country. Over 100 players ranked nationally in the top 100 in the classes of 2020, 2021 and 2022 participated in the EYBL.
It is a kill or be killed the league. Each night the players take the floor knowing they must deliver or they are likely to be on the bad end of a Ball is Life highlight.
Oklahoma was represented for the first time in quite some time at Nike Peach Jam in the 16U bracket. As I scanned the record books no team from Oklahoma has ever won the tournament at 17U or 16U.
The 16U tournament format beings with four pools of four teams each. Team Griffin was matched up against the number one seed, MOKAN, Pro Skills, and the PSA Cardinals. The top two from each Pool advance to the Elite 8 in a one-game elimination bracket.
Over the past week, I was able to have a unique experience with the team throughout the tournament. Below is my account of what took place.
It is 6:39 am on a Tuesday excited players await their leader at the Delta airlines gate, head coach Kellen McCoy. He greets his team with a calming smile preceding to get everyone checked in.
The trip to North Augusta, South Carolina begins. The plane lands in Atlanta to find a charter bus awaiting the team for the two-hour ride. Team Griffin has never had any of their teams in the short program history make Nike Peach Jam. The buzz is different on this trip as if the players feel they belong on the biggest stage in the country.
Coach McCoy is eager to see what the tournament has to offer. Over the last several weeks McCoy’s phone was buzzing with big-time players wanting to come to join his team to play at Peach Jam. McCoy, however, has chosen to go against the odds. “These are my guys,” said McCoy. “I am staying loyal to the guys we brought in from the start.”
McCoy was betting on his bench of JJ White, DJ Freeman, PJ Johnson, and Glorie Houmba would come through.
The team heads for its first practice at the facility, Riverview Park Activities Center received a face lift adding a new front entrance with two new courts one on each side. The 16U and 15U teams would play each game on Court 1 or Court 2 throughout the weekend. Team Griffin walks through the door frame of Court 2 into an ice box. Zion Harmon one of the top players in the 2021 Class nationally leans over to several Griffin players and says “I hope you guys enjoy the cold.” Seriously, it was all of 50 degrees in the gymnasium.
Team Griffin battles off the cold and gets in a good practice run. Coach McCoy breaks down their first opponent the PSA Cardinals out of New York providing his team with every ounce of information he has extracted from watching PSA online.
After practice, the team makes the short walk over to Big Daddy’s BBQ from the hotel for a team dinner. The 14U and 16U squads of Team Griffin fill the banquet room completely up. Little did anyone know how much of a role Big Daddys BBQ would play this week.
After a good nights sleep, Team Griffin wakes up for a shoot around back in the same cold gym. Coach McCoy and a few others have the start of a cold from how cold the gym is compared to the blazing hot summer heat.
The team takes a load off getting some downtime before their first game. The anticipation grows. As we head to the game on our 17-minute bus ride I lean over to assistant Teddy Owens and ask how does he feel. “I think we are prepared and will be ready for what they throw at us,” said Owens. Time would tell.
The ball tips. Here we go.
The 20th ranked player in the country, Zion Cruz scores quickly to give PSA an early lead. Over the first half, it turns into the Mac Etienne show a top 70 player nationally. Etienne gives Team Griffin fits inside getting the ball in spots for easy dunks. Coach McCoy throws in some different lineups towards the end of the first half. Finally, the team finds a rhythm as JJ White an unlikely hero comes off the bench scoring three big baskets including a steal.
As the halftime buzzer sounds, Team Griffin is tied 24-24 with PSA. Coach McCoy echoes throughout the huddle how important it is to start fast in the second half.
KJ Adams begins the second half in stride dominating PSA around the rim. It is clear the size and strength of Adams along with his ability to move quicker than PSA’s bigs is a problem. Trey Alexander takes Griffins hot start to another level with a 9-0 personal run to push Team Griffin ahead by 12 and the rest is history. Team Griffin picks up an impressive 63-49 victory.
Pure joy is a great way to describe the feeling of the squad following the victory. The key however to sustaining success is never getting to high or to low.
Bed time comes quickly as the next game would be a quick turnaround at noon on Thursday against Pro Skills. The opportunity awaiting Team Griffin was clinching a spot in the Elite 8.
As you looked across the floor before the game it was pretty clear Team Griffin had the most talent. The game begins with KJ Adams dominating from the tip. The aggression Adams brings is unstoppable. After leading by double digits in the first half Pro Skills is able to cut the Team Griffin lead down to four at the halftime buzzer.
Cason Wallace and Christian Wallace lead the assault of Pro Skills in the second half as the Guard combo slices through the defense snatching the lead with two minutes to go.
As the game comes down the stretch KJ Adams wills Team Griffin to a one-point lead with an and-one basket inside. Pro Skills draws a foul on the opposite end making one of two to tie the game. The ball floats to the wing in the hands of Jaxson Robinson with the game on the line. Robinson passes up the shot and Team Griffin is not able to get a shot off. We head to overtime. This game would start to begin a theme of close games for Team Griffin.
The ball in overtime does not roll Team Griffin’s way coming up short at the buzzer. The Elite 8 dream takes a hit. Shortly after the game finishes word from the other game in the pool comes out MOKAN has lost. The loss makes Team Griffin’s outlook in the tournament bleak.
Every team is now 1-1 in the Pool meaning Friday’s games Pro Skills vs. PSA Cardinals and Team Griffin vs. MOKAN the winner advances and the loser heads home. The odds are in the least favor of Team Griffin as MOKAN is the top seed in the entire tournament. Not to mention over the last few years MOKAN had dominated Team Griffin in head to head matchups.
The mood on the bus following the turn of events Thursday is somber.
A trip to Big Daddy’s is the move for the coaching staff. Coach McCoy sits down with the one player who joins them at the restaurant, Houmba. They talked of where Houmba was from in Africa to another sport he enjoys soccer. In this moment as I sat back and watched Houmba helped Coach McCoy simply getting his mind off the tough loss.
Coach McCoy immediately went back to scouting the next opponent as he did before each game. The coaching staff did everything they could to obtain the most knowledge possible.
The team reconvenes later that night to watch the 14U play. Head Coach John Roby draws up a last-second lob play to push the 14U squad into the round of 32 at the Made Hoops The 8th Grade Finale tournament. The 16s erupt on the sidelines cheering on their younger teammates.
The mood shifted after the 14U game to a positive vibe between the players. There were laughs and giggles on the bus. But as the bus stopped to let the team out at the hotel someone was still remembering the loss. Alexander calls out to the front “you good Coach McCoy?”
McCoy responds “No I am not good we lost.”
Before the players exist the bus Coach McCoy takes charge imploring his guys of the importance of the game against MOKAN.
“Get some sleep,” said McCoy as everyone exited the bus.
After the players exist their bus assistant coach DJ Lemons has a vital meeting with several players in their rooms. Later on in the week multiple players sited talking with Coach Lemons helped them.
The sun rises the next morning and the game is on. MOKAN vs. Team Griffin with one spot in the Elite 8 on the line. From the tip the intensity is extremely high from both sides.
Over 30 colleges are in attendance to watch the Midwest foes battle. Team Griffin jumps out to a narrow lead. Midway through the first half Coach McCoy goes to his bench White and Freeman coming into the game. White is once again excellent giving Team Griffin a scoring boost to help them to a double-digit lead at the half.
Anyone who has watched MOKAN’s program over the years knew what was coming next. A comeback.
Stevie Strong hit back to back to back three-pointers to cut the Griffin lead to just two points with 7:45 left to play. The game teeters back and forth until one minute to play. Team Griffin gets a huge corner three-point from Jaxson Robinson to seal the victory. After passing up a shot late the day before, Robinson was ready this go around. Team Griffin finally did it. The 16U Griffin squad knocked off MOKAN, 62-57.
The Elite 8 bound Team Griffin squad was riding high after their victory as one could expect. After all remember, MOKAN was the number one overall seed. Meaning, Team Griffin had just captured the number one overall seed entering the round of eight.
Before their next contest, Team Griffin got a surprise. A visit from Blake Griffin himself at a local Pizza spot downtown. The kids faces beamed with joy hanging out with an NBA star.
Of course, Blake had a lot of fan fair from local people who wanted to get a picture with him. The surprise of the night was when players from Team Griffin were getting asked by locals for photos. The kids really enjoyed the spotlight smiling from ear to ear as they headed to the hotel.
Sleep was key as Team Griffin had the possibility of two games on Saturday with the first one starting at 9:00 AM against Nike powerhouse program, Boo Williams.
The alarm buzzed at 7:15 AM most kids want nothing to do with waking up early during the summer. Although this early morning was a little different for Team Griffin. JJ White woke up smiling ear to ear still relishing his game the day before but making sure everyone knew “I still have some big buckets.”
Team Griffin would need White and company to continue to perform at a high level. KJ Adams walked down the hall with extremely high confidence Griffin would be returning to the hotel with a pair of victories.
The cold gymnasium #2 had been the stomping grounds for Team Griffin so far of the tournament. On this Elite 8 morning Team Griffin switched over to gymnasium #1. A welcomed change from the cold.
Team Griffin arrived with 65 minutes until game time well before Boo Williams. After getting up a lot of shots Team Griffin was ready to get after it.
Jaxson Robinson led Team Griffin to an early lead with back to back big shots from distance. However, it was Boo Williams holding a double-digit lead at the half.
On the ropes with 16 minutes left it was time for Team Griffin to explode or fold in the second half. The same player who led the initial charge, Jaxson Robinson, led the comeback. Dagger three-pointers from Robinson allowed Team Griffin to catch their footing and get rolling. Robinson gave Team Griffin their first lead of the second half with 5:27 left, 64-62. Of course, it was a big three-pointer that did the trick.
Daimion Collins delivered a massive slam to give Team Griffin with 1:30 to go lighting the gym on fire. Blake especially loved the jam by Collins. It was as if the life was sucked out of Boo Williams when Collins grabbed the carbon steel rim throwing the ball through the hoop.
Boo Williams never recovered falling to Team Griffin, 85-77. The five three-pointers hit by Robinson were huge.
Team Griffin did not have much time for a turnaround as they played the semifinals six hours later. Who would they play? It was still uncertain with Vegas Elite and Team Final playing right after Team Griffins win on court two.
The team headed off to subway for lunch. Coach McCoy and his assistants Owens, Lemons, and Troy Lallemand stuck around at the gym to see who would they play and grab a scouting report. Team Griffin had already played Vegas Elite twice in the regular season going 1-1. Team Final out of Pennsylvania was someone they had never seen before.
Coach McCoy vigorously took down notes as one of the parents in the crowd right next to him screamed the entire game. In the second half, the game took a turn due to #17 prospect in the country, Richard Isaacs Jr. catching fire. McCoy wadded up his Team Final notes and turned his focus to Vegas Elite as the buzzer sounded.
The one-time Team Griffin took down Vegas Elite, Richard Isaacs Jr. was not playing as he was out of town playing for USA Basketball. Team Griffin new the challenge would be tough.
Watching the Griffin group so close you could tell something changed during the MOKAN game. It was as if they realized we belong in the conversation with the elites. The belief they could pull this off spread among the team like wildfire.
Team Griffin dominated early with great play from Adams and Alexander. It was all looking almost too easy to be true. And then Isaacs Jr. got going in the second half. Isaacs Jr. was unstoppable going on a personal 13-0 run to close the gap.
Vegas Elite grabbed the lead with a little over five minutes remaining. The crowd of Griffin parents cheered loud “Keep battling; this is far from over.”
Taylor Griffin and Blake were up on their feet completely locked into the contest. As the clock ticked under a minute to go Vegas snatched a one-point lead. Alexander drove the ball to the cup with 15 seconds remaining the shot banged off the backboard then the rim and as it was getting ready to fall to the floor Collins fought off three defenders for the rebound tipping the ball in. Vegas Elite raced the ball up the floor only to be blocked by Alexander in the corner. The ball slammed against the floor out of bounds with just six-tenths of a second remaining.
After a timeout, Alexander snagged the inbounds and the rest was history. Team Griffin had accomplished something no other Oklahoma team had ever done making an appearance in the Championship Game.
It was fitting for Alexander to be the one to end the game as he put together the best overall game of his young basketball career. A near triple-double from Alexander scoring 11 points to go with 13 rebounds, and 9 assists.
The players, parents, and coaching staff celebrated onto the game floor. They snapped this epic picture to capture the clinching moment. All was great in the Griffin world. Then something happened that no one would have predicted.
A Nike represented pulled Coach McCoy off to the side “Coach I don’t want to say this to the kids but this one isn’t it. You haven’t won yet. The real one is tomorrow.”
It was a good reminder there was still a mission to be completed. Coach McCoy took the attitude of there was still work to be done. The team grabbed a quick meal and as was a tradition at this point, Coach McCoy and staff ate separately begging to scout Team Takeover.
The sun rose on Sunday with an Oklahoma team in the finals of Nike Peach Jam for the very first time. Everything this week had been building to this moment. Team Takeover is traditionally one of the most productive programs top to bottom on the Nike circuit.
The parents arrived before the team anchored down below in the basement underneath the Championship floor. The two teams went through walkthroughs in separate gyms leading up to the game. As the Nike reps came to get the team the parents and Team Griffin fans lined the walls letting the boys know how proud they were of each of them.
There is no setting to prepare the players what they are about to enter. Peach Jam’s championship court is one of a kind. With five minutes to go the gym was completely full from wall to wall to see this matchup. Blake and Taylor sat courtside directly across from the teams bench.
The ball tipped and it was back to basketball as normal. Well, with some huge roars from the massive crowd.
Team Takeover jumped out to an early lead over Team Griffin. Jakai Robinson was unbelievable for Team Takeover putting on a scoring show. An unlikely hero leads the Team Griffin charge in the first half, White. Before the weekend Coach McCoy stressed he was going to stick with his bench guys and not pick up anyone new. It paid off in huge dividends with White putting together quite the weekend. Despite, White’s big scoring off the bench in the first half, Team Griffin still trailed by 9 at the half, 35-26.
The start of the second half did not show much promise for Team Griffin. Takeover was just too much with Jakai Robinson hitting big shot after big shot. Finally, Team Griffin strung together a couple of stops with a 7-0 run by Cortes and Robinson.
Alexander got going in the second half to give Griffin a short-lived lead. It appeared all hope was lost. Sixteen seconds flashed on the clock with Team Griffin down by four. Alexander took the ball just inside the three-point line and lifted for a fadeaway mid-range jumper. Swish. Alexander cut the lead to two.
The biggest thing of note, Team Takeover was in the one and one. As Team Takeover walked to the line holding a two-point lead the crowd grew deathly silent except for the small Team Griffin section. Blake and Taylor stood courtside hoping their guys would get one more crack at the basket with a chance to tie.
Dribble. Dribble. Clank. He missed it. The ball fell into the hands of Collins who immediately got the ball to Alexander. Coast to coast Alexander who had just hit a big shot to cut it to two nailed another huge shot off the glass to tie the game at 63. We were headed to overtime.
Fitting right? Team Griffin had been through three overtime games over the weekend. If nothing else the only loss they took, which came in overtime prepared them for the big overtimes later on.
Overtime took a turn for the worst for Team Griffin as Trey Alexander was hit with a charging call late leaving them without one of their best scorers the rest of the way.
Adams pretty much made it his personal mission to insure Griffin would not lose once Alexander went out. It was almost deja vu. Griffin down two after a free-throw make 7.9 to go and Adams this time goes coast to coast to send us into a second overtime.
Disaster struck even earlier in the second overtime. Collins fouled out going up for a rebound to take the second Griffin starter out of the game.
Adams continued his mission to give Team Griffin the championship giving them one lead. However, Takeover found a way to draw foul getting to the line and tying the game back at 73. Off of a missed free-throw, Adams took the ball full court to the rim. No one had a chance to stop the determined Adams from scoring.
The shot bounced on the rim a couple of times before falling. Swish. Chaos. Griffin wins. Adams goes straight to Blake giving him a huge hug. Before either knew what was happening they were surrounded by coaches and players jumping up and down in pure joy celebrating a Nike Peach Jam Championship.
Team Griffin had accomplished something no other Oklahoma team had ever done. Peach Jam champs.
“What just happened,” Coach Lallemand said in disbelief.
Adams just lived a moment that can only be described as a dream. One he will always cherish and hold onto.
“It is humbling just seeing everything we worked for came down to one shot,” said Adams. “It was awesome seeing everyone’s emotions because for that one shot I had everything we had been working for in one moment. The crazy thing is it has not set in. It still feels like I am about to see my team again next week when that is not the case. Makes me sad a little bit.”
The bond this Griffin team built is very easy to see.
It took four overtimes throughout the tournament for Griffin winning their final two games by three points total. McCoy reflected after the tournament on how crazy the run was saying “It was a shock that we were able to do it. Our guys had to persevere through a lot and just kept fighting.”
McCoy added on just how crazy the weekend was at Peach Jam.
“It was like a movie a storybook ending,” said McCoy. “Having Blake and Taylor all week was awesome really good for the guys to spend time hangout and get to know them more. It means a ton to those kids. In that Championship game, Blake helped our momentum.”
One thing is for sure the future is extremely bright for the Griffin program.
“Everywhere I look we are in the news,” said McCoy. “We are really thankful and excited about the future to keep building this program.”
Blake and Taylor Griffin were both in attendance. Immediately following the event both were all smiles enjoying seeing the young men get their due.
“This team cares about each other,” said Blake Griffin. “I just love it for the kids. You could see it when Trey went out of the game fouling out he stayed locked getting the guys water in timeouts and cheering them on. KJ took over from there dominating the overtime. This was a really fun experience this weekend.”
For Taylor, he was at the ground floor of building back the program giving him quite the unique perspective on the run.
“This is huge for Oklahoma,” said Taylor Griffin. “For many years the talent across the state has been spread out even with players going out of state to play. To build this program back to where we can have the best kids and we can build the name for the state of basketball in Oklahoma this is a positive thing.”
For more content on the Nike Peach Jam victory for Team Griffin enjoy this film from Hoops Addicts.
For more information email Matt@prephoops.com