Benjamin brings
Knights to final

At any sign of trouble, the Mount Vernon, N.Y., basketball team puts its trust in Keith Benjamin to pull it through.

The Knights needed him desperately and he performed in crunch time of last night's 64-53 overtime victory over Montrose Christian of Rockville, Md., in the semifinals of the Iolani Classic.

Benjamin, a 6-foot-2 guard, made a 10-footer and then hit a layup off Chris Lowe's steal to tie it at 47-all with 16 seconds to go in regulation. But the overtime period is when Benjamin really kicked it in, scoring 10 of the Knights' 17 points.

"It reads in the (tournament) booklet that Keith Benjamin's going to play basketball at Pittsburgh, so I didn't want people to wonder why," Benjamin said after scoring 23 points, pulling down seven rebounds and making five steals. "They're not wondering why right now. My teammates stuck with me and kept giving me the ball."

The victory ensured a date with the nation's top-ranked team -- Oak Hill Academy of Mouth of Wilson, Va. -- in the tournament final tonight at 8. The Warriors defeated two-time defending champion and 18th-ranked Fairfax of Los Angeles in last night's other semifinal.

No. 14 Mount Vernon's tenacious defense made a huge difference in the outcome. The Knights cashed in on 26 turnovers by the seventh-ranked Mustangs.

"We take pride in our defensive pressure," Mount Vernon coach Bob Cimmino said. "When it works, we're very good. We just like to put good on-the-ball pressure on teams and make them work for everything."

The Knights led 28-19 early in the third quarter before Montrose Christian's Antwan Hardy drilled three 3-pointers to make it a two-point game, 30-28.

Hardy was just beginning to warm up. He finished with a game-high 24 points and was an amazing 8-for-11 (including 7-for-9 in the second half and OT) from beyond the arc.

"I didn't think they were going to be able to beat us," Hardy said. "It's really hard to lose like that. We deserved to win, but it wasn't our night and we didn't meet the challenge."

Hardy drained three more treys during a 3-minute span of the final period as Montrose Christian grabbed a 47-43 edge with 2:05 left.

That's when Benjamin took over, forcing the overtime and then owning it. He hit two short jumpers, a 3-pointer and then a crowd-pleasing dunk with 1:04 left to make it 59-50 and put the Mustangs out of reach.

"He elevated himself," Cimmino said. "He pushed himself and held the team together, but I expect him to take over games. We had been giving up some expensive 3-pointers."

Montrose's 6-foot-11 center Tunji Sorye owned the backboards with a game-high 14 rebounds to add to his nine points and five blocks.

Tom Hammonds, the son of the former NBA player of the same name, added 12 points for the Mustangs.

"Our execution against their press just wasn't good and that shouldn't happen to us," Montrose coach Stu Vetter said. "We did a nice job coming back. After falling behind, we took the lead. But when they went up by about five in the OT and then they made that dunk, we were just trying to do whatever we could."

Cimmino said the win wasn't as important as the experience of playing and learning against top competition.

"We learned to push ourselves in a game like this and we get another chance to do it tomorrow night. That's why we travel 5,000 miles. It would have been worth it even if we lost. As Oak Hill coach Steve Smith said to me once, 'If you're going to lose a game, it might as well be in Hawaii at the Iolani Classic.' "

Oak Hill 78, Fairfax 55: The Warriors' 6-foot-9 forward Josh Smith scored 17 points in a rout of Fairfax.

Smith, who signed to play at Indiana but might opt for the NBA Draft, delivered 12 points in the first half as Oak Hill sprinted out to a 37-24 lead at the break. Center Brian Johnson also scored 17 points for the Warriors.

Joshua Shipp scored 11 of his team-high 19 points in the first half for the Lions. Jamal Boykin added 18.


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