The legendary program at Oak Hill Academy has won seven POWERADE FAB 50 national titles and just celebrated its latest one during a May 11 on-campus assembly.
Most high school basketball fans know the basics about the Warriors’ best players over the years such as Jerry Stackhouse, Carmelo Anthony, Josh Smith and Rajon Rondo, not to mention the unbeaten teams Stackhouse and Smith led to a No. 1 rating.
But what about the program’s landmark wins, its most underrated players and the top individual performers ever to lace ‘em up against The Hill?
With the help of Steve Smith, Oak Hill’s head coach since the 1985-86 season, let’s take a trip down memory lane for an inside look at the famed basketball program.
Five monumental wins
Oak Hill had some talented teams before Smith was head coach, but he feels the program arrived with its victory over Auburn (Auburn, Ala.) in the title game of the 1986 Holiday Prep Classic in Las Vegas, at the time the nation’s top tournament.
“At the time, our new president wasn’t so sure it was a good idea for us to go,” Smith said. “We had to pay our own way, but since then every tournament we’ve ever played in has been expenses paid.”
Since that game, a match up with Oak Hill is usually the highlight of an opponent’s season and many times a mythical national title has been on the line.
1. 88-74 over North College Hill (Cincinnati, Ohio), February 2006
“The O.J. Mayo game” as Smith called it, pitted his Warriors against North College Hill (Cincinnati, Ohio) at Cincinnati’s U.S. Bank Arena. Mayo, then a junior, was arguably the second biggest draw in high school basketball in the 2000′s behind LeBron James. Mayo (Memphis Grizzlies) had 43 points and fellow junior and Huntington, W.Va. native Bill Walker (24 points) came up big before 16,202 fans, but it wasn’t enough to overcome a balanced Oak Hill effort led by Ty Lawson (21 points). “I remember the crowd gave a standing ovation when someone besides O.J. and Billy scored in the third quarter. The game was on a Saturday and it was sold out by Monday. They were scalping tickets for $450, there was just so much hype,” Smith said.
2. 72-66 over St. Vincent-St. Mary (Akron, Ohio), February 2002
The featured game of the PrimeTime Shootout in Trenton, N. J., saw two heavyweight teams and two heavyweight players duke it out. Many in the basketball community were already in the region for the 2002 NBA All-Star Game in Philadelphia, and some made the short trek to check out junior wunderkind LeBron James and Oak Hill senior Carmelo Anthony. There were already whispers James was the best amateur player in the world and he took his growing brand to the next level by scoring 36 points. Oak Hill, however, was the deeper team and ‘Melo showed he was a big-time player in his own right with 34 points. “He [Anthony] was hanging with LeBron in the hotel lobby and the team was loose, but I was a bit worried,” Smith said. “He told me, ‘trust me, I’m going to go hard.’ I didn’t want to wear him out so he didn’t always guard LeBron, but it was a great game to watch. Once everyone knew we had the game in hand with like 18 seconds, everybody stood up and gave both teams a standing ovation.”
3. 62-60 over Christ the King (Middle Village, N.Y.), December 1998
Many times tournament championship games in December turn out to decide the POWERADE FAB 50 title and that was the case in the finale of the Glaxo Wellcome Invitational in Raleigh, N.C. Tourney MVP Ron Slay (26 points, 13-16 shooting) had a monster game for Oak Hill, but the Warriors’ hero was junior guard Cliff Hawkins. “We held for the last shot and Cliff scored at the buzzer,” Smith said. Hawkins’ bank shot upped Oak Hill’s record to 16-0 and propelled the Warriors to their third No. 1 ranking in seven years.
4. 77-61 over Westchester (Los Angeles), December 2001
The winner of this game was going to take over the No. 1 spot in the rankings and there was little doubt who was the better team that night in front of 4,800 fans in the championship of the Nike Academy Invitational in Houston. Carmelo Anthony led the way with 24 points as the Warriors put away a team which eventually produced three NBA players with a 12-2 run in the third quarter. “We played really well that game. We lost one game against Mater Dei at their event and it cost us the No. 1 rating,” Smith said. Oak Hill finished No. 2 at 32-1 and Westchester finished No. 4.
5. 74-62 (2OT) over Montrose Christian (Rockville, Md.), December 2008
Smith and Montrose Christian coach Stu Vetter have engaged in legendary battles over the years, going back to Vetter’s days at Flint Hill Prep in Roanoke, Va., but this game in the finals of the Iolani Tournament in Hawaii might have been the best. Guard Lamont “MoMo” Jones netted 40 points, including eight in overtime, to propel Oak Hill. “MoMo made a 25-foot 3-pointer at the buzzer to send the game into overtime,” Smith said. Jones made eight 3-pointers in the title game.
Five most underrated players
Oak Hill has produced 23 NBA draft picks and 28 McDonald’s All-Americans. Other talented players, however, didn’t get the recognition they deserved — either because they didn’t become household names or because teammates overshadowed them. Here are five Smith singled out.
1. Anthony Cade ’90, 6-9 F
He is underrated, but was highly-regarded by national scouts. He was a McDonald’s All-American, but just didn’t pan out as a college player. Cade could handle the ball, slash and was an exceptional outside shooter for his size. “He’s the best player at Oak Hill nobody knows about. He played in McDonald’s, then dropped off the face of the earth. If you go all the way back, he’s one of the 10 best players to ever play at this school,” Smith said. Cade led Oak Hill to a 29-0 record and No. 2 national rating.
2. Steve Blake ’99, 6-2 G
The current Los Angeles Lakers guard played a key role on a 31-0 team that finished No. 1 in the FAB 50 and played one of Oak Hill’s toughest schedules up to that point. He averaged 8.8 points and 7.3 assists per game, but some of his teammates on a balanced team weren’t too shabby, either. “He was the fourth ranked guy on the team behind Ron Slay, Travis Watson and Cliff Hawkins,” Smith said. Blake helped Oak Hill’s “unsung” national championship team win five tournaments in five different states.
3. Venson Hamilton ’95, 6-9 C
Smith went deep in his talent well to come up with Hamilton, who just kept working to get better during his time on The Hill and in college. The top players on Oak Hill’s 31-3 team were Ron Mercer (6-7) and Melvin Whitaker (6-10), while Hamilton was a bit of an undersized five man. “He went to Nebraska where he played with Tyronn Lue. His senior season he was Big 12 Player of the Year. He left as only one of four players ever in the conference with 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 200 blocked shots,” Smith said.
4. Ron Slay ’99, 6-7 F
This rugged 220-pounder was the top dog on Oak Hill’s third national title team with averages of 16.3 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. He was MVP of the Reebok Holiday Classic as the Warriors crushed Mt. Zion (Durham, N.C.), 81-50, in the title game. “He didn’t get to play in any high school all-star games like McDonald’s, but he was SEC Player of the Year at Tennessee. It was an unsung team, but I thought he was vastly underrated,” Smith said.
5. Orlando Vega ’88, 6-3 F
This strong wing player transformed into a guard as a professional, but at Oak Hill he could play all over the floor. There wasn’t a shot he didn’t like to take — or one he couldn’t make. “He has the second highest scoring average ever in a season (30.6) and held the record until Brandon Jennings broke it. He led probably the worst Oak Hill team in history at 21-7. We started off 5-0, then I kicked our starting center and point guard off the team, then we lost four straight games,” Smith said. Vega, who has a cult following in his native Puerto Rico, dropped over 40 points three times, was MVP of the 1988 Dapper Dan Roundball Classic and was named fourth team Parade All-American.
Five toughest foes
Of course, Oak Hill hasn’t won every big game over the years. They often play on the road in hostile environments against teams with a highly-regarded prospect. This list is so tough, NBA forward Lamar Odom didn’t make the cut even though he helped Redemption Christian Academy (Troy, N.Y.) hand Oak Hill a rare home loss in January 1997. Since then, Oak Hill has won 185 consecutive home games and is 282-1 at home since December of 1982.
1. LeBron James, St. Vincent-St. Mary (Akron, Ohio) ’03 6-8 G
Oak Hill played the Fightin’ Irish three times, beating them twice and losing in James’ senior year. “His coming out party came in Columbus his sophomore year. He was 15 years old. I remember watching him in warm ups get his elbow above the rim and I’m thinking, ‘this is a full-grown man.’ He had 33 points, but we beat them by one point and had an undefeated team,” Smith said.
2. Derrick Rose, Simeon (Chicago) ’07 6-3 G
The Warriors played Simeon twice, splitting with them. They lost in a ESPN televised game in Chicago during Rose’s senior year, their only loss in a national championship season. The year before, Oak Hill squeaked out a 63-57 victory despite being short-handed. “I suspended Ty Lawson the day of the game and moved Nolan Smith over to the point,” Smith said.
3. Paul Pierce, Inglewood (Inglewood, Calif.) ’95 6-6 F
Smith has some sympathy for the Boston Celtics forward because he didn’t get to showcase his talent when the Sentinels met Oak Hill in the semifinals of the 1994 Las Vegas Prep Invitational. Smith thinks it also may have cost Pierce some national acclaim. “Their coach decided to hold the ball. They stalled and it didn’t work. We beat them handily and Paul scored seven points. After the game, we didn’t have separate locker rooms, and I could hear the coach apologizing to the team,” Smith said.
4. Tracy McGrady, Mt. Zion (Durham, N.C.) ’97 6-7 F
Not on the national radar as a junior at Auburndale (Auburndale, Fla.), Smith holds McGrady in high regard — especially since he twice led Mt. Zion to victories over the Warriors during his senior season when he was named Mr. Basketball USA. “He was a phenomenal scorer and a phenomenal athlete,” Smith said.
5. Monta Ellis, Lanier (Jackson, Miss.) ’05 6-4 G
The Milwaukee Bucks guard didn’t have overwhelming talent around him, but he kept Lanier in the game twice against teams that included Josh Smith, Rajon Rondo, Kevin Durant, and Ty Lawson. “He scored 42 and 48 points against us,” Smith said. His senior year when he went for 48, Ellis’ four consecutive points tied it up at 66-66, but Lawson and Durant hit three consecutive 3-pointers to give Oak Hill some cushion in a 94-80 victory. The year before, Oak Hill won by five points, 80-75.
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