NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Even after a defeat, Memphis (Tenn.) Melrose coach Jermaine Johnson isn't shy about his civic pride.
A showcase game in Nashville gave Melrose, a public school, the opportunity to test itself against basketball powerhouse Mouth of Wilson (Va.) Oak Hill Academy. Preseason No. 1 Melrose was among seven public schools in the RivalsHigh Top 10, but No. 6 Oak Hill showed its strength, talent and numbers in an 80-59 win at the Battle of the Best showcase Friday night.
Although Memphis rival White Station, which defeated Melrose (4-2) eight days earlier, lost to another private school power in Henderson (Nev.) Findlay Prep on Thursday, Johnson is confident Memphis basketball remains as strong as ever.
"If we put together the best players from the city of Memphis against Oak Hill, we'd beat them," Johnson said. "We'd beat them bad."
Alas, Johnson is coaching just one school from a city with some of the best public basketball in the country.
And after falling behind by 21 at halftime, it showed it had enough to get the better of the school that produced Brandon Jennings, Nolan Smith, Ty Lawson and Rajon Rondo in recent years.
Melrose, which won the Class AAA state title last season, frustrated Oak Hill (6-0) for the third quarter playing its brand of basketball - pressing and getting to the free-throw line.
Melrose converted eight consecutive free throws and 10 of 12, forcing turnovers and getting Oak Hill big men Daniel Gomis and A.J. Hammons into foul trouble. It closed Oak Hill's lead to 45-40 late in the third quarter but didn't have enough to complete the comeback.
"We had a size advantage although we started only one big guy and they fouled out anyway," Oak Hill coach Steve Smith said. "But our guards are still 6-4, 6-5. [Melrose is] quick, they do some things that bother you, if you let them bother you, as we did in the third quarter."
Even with Gomis and Hammons on the bench and with forward Sidiki Johnson, a four-star recruit committed to Arizona, on crutches for the entire game, Oak Hill countered with waves of Division I-bound talent.
Guard Jordan Adams, a junior, came off the bench to score 11 points, eight in the second half. Wing Damian Wilson took over in the fourth quarter with 10 points including eight in a row for Oak Hill. Guard Ben McLemore, who was quiet for most of the first half, put the game away with a series of dunks and alley oops as Oak Hill scored 31 points in the fourth quarter.
Melrose relied on Adonis Thomas for most of the game. Thomas and Cedric McAfee (13 points) were the only Melrose players in double figures. Meanwhile, five players from Oak Hill scored at least 11 points, led by McLemore's 20.
"We weren't disciplined, we didn't play our type of basketball," Thomas said.
Oak Hill guard Quinn Cook knows his team is a measuring stick for others, especially a public school like Melrose looking to take Oak Hill's place on top.
"Public schools come at you that much hungrier," Cook said. "Sometimes they think you're soft."
For a time, Melrose looked like it would win that argument.
"If we played our best, they never would have left Nashville, Tennessee, with a win," Johnson said. "We played a mediocre game."