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Cooper leads McEachern to win in Culligan City of Palms Classic

Fort Myers Green Wave also wins opener in basketball tourney

December 19, 2019
By CJ HADDAD ( , Cape Coral Daily Breeze

Sharife Cooper and the McEachern Indians picked up right where they left off last year, as the defending Culligan City of Palms Classic champions collected a first-round victory on opening night of the 2019 edition of the nation's No. 1 high school basketball tournament at Suncoast Credit Union Arena at Florida SouthWestern State College.

Cooper, a top-20 consensus senior across the country via ESPN, Rivals and 247 Sports, Auburn commit and last year's City of Palms Most Valuable Player, dropped in 29 points, collected seven rebounds and dished out four assists on the way to a 69-65 McEachern (GA) win over Roman Catholic (PA).

"It was a good win for us," said McEachern head coach, Mike Thompson. "We lost our first game in quite a while just a few days ago, so our response to that was good. I thought we improved in a lot of areas, played hard, played defense for four quarters -- and that's a good team. It was a great win for us."

Article Photos

Sharife Cooper at last year's City of Palms Classic. Cooper led the McEachern Indians to a first-found victory in the 2019 edition of the national tournament.


The Indians, now 8-1, got off to a slow start, finding themselves down 17-9 after one quarter of play. By the half, they pulled within two of Roman Catholic (3-1)

"We're relatively young," Thompson said. "We've got a lot of guys that have not played together very much, and so we've only had eight games to try and get that figured out. And I think when it comes to an environment like this, it takes a little time to adjust."

The Cahillites' top player, Jalen Duren, simply put, was a problem on the court for McEachern, and for any team that takes on Roman Catholic this season.

The 6-foot-10, No. 2 ranked sophomore by ESPN, finished with 21 points on 10-of-12 shooting and collected 16 rebounds.

"We just try to be as active as we can -- make it as hard as you possible can make it," Thompson said of defending Duren. "You can't stop people like that. You just try to make it really tough on them so that maybe somewhere down the stretch they miss something or you get a turnover or something like that. I felt like we've done a pretty good job with that kind of stuff."

Cooper's drive and determination increased throughout the game, as he led his team not just by scoring baskets, but by being a floor general for his squad.

Cooper was efficient in the second half, shooting 4-of-7 from the floor for 19 points, including clutch free throws down the stretch.

"I just try and let the game come to me," Cooper said. "It's a new tournament, new environment, so, just starting to settle down and getting used to things, it helped me throughout the game."

Cooper said he's quite pleased to be back in the City of Palms.

"I love it. It's definitely one of my favorite tournaments," said the 6-foot-1 playmaker. "Great environment, Florida weather, it's definitely fun."

Cooper, the 2019 MaxPreps Player of the Year, is leading a core made up of juniors Camron McDowell, Randy Brady and Bobby Moore.

Cooper's message to his younger teammates in this high-profile tournament?

"Just come out and play," Cooper said. "I know a lot of times in big environments, you start to get a little tentative -- just come out and play, get lost in the game and have fun."

For the first time since 2012, a local team secured a victory in the main bracket at the City of Palms Classic.

Fort Myers (6-2) took down Marshall County (KY) 74-71 in overtime behind stand-out performances from Kyle Riemenschneider, Javian McCollum, Cayen Baker and Jamin Primus -- all of whom produced double-digit scoring performances. Baker also reeled in an impressive 18 rebounds in his double-double effort.

"It was nerve-wracking," said Fort Myers head coach Keeth Jones. "In the first-half, we came out a little bit flat and they came out ready to play. The big thing is we faced a whole lot of adversity in this game, and every time we faced it -- we did the right thing. We took good shots, we made free throws and we got some stops on defense."

The Green Wave found themselves down 35-29 at half, thanks to some sharp-shooting from distance via Marshall County guards.

Marshall County's Zion Harmon, ESPN's No. 25 overall junior, wasn't shy about letting it fly all night. The 5-foot-10 guard dropped 36 points on 15-of-34 shooting, including 19 three-point attempts. He also added nine assists and three boards.

Harmon would hit a deep three as time expired to send the game to overtime, and hit his first couple shots of the extra period before going cold.

The Greenies stayed with Marshall County (2-5) all night, as the Marshals' biggest lead was eight early in the first quarter. Fort Myers would chip away slowly but surely, playing fundamentally sound game, moving the ball, finding the open man and rebounding well.

Fort Myers made the adjustment to use its size advantage in the second half.

"We had to be better offensively and get the ball inside," Jones said.

Baker, who earlier in the day signed his letter of intent to play at the University of North Carolina on a football scholarship, said the team has been preaching a family vibe all season.

"It doesn't matter who we're playing, it doesn't matter what the score is, we're going to play hard, we're going to play together," Baker said. "That's kind of the theme we're trying to establish right now is 'family.' It doesn't matter who's down, we're going to pick their head up. It doesn't matter who's scoring, as long as we're winning, as long as we're playing hard and as long as we're playing together, that's all that matters."

Fort Myers will take on last year's national champion, IMG Academy, in its next City of Palms contest. Though IMG is loaded with top-ranked prospects, Coach Jones' kids are looking forward to the challenge and making some memories along the way.

"You know, the biggest thing is you get to play in this environment and it's fun," Jones said. "These guys for years will say at one time they were playing against guys that tomorrow, or next year may be in the NBA. Just compete -- that's all we talked about. Let's go out tomorrow and go have fun, let's compete, and that's all you can do."

-Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj



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