Racing around the court with their usual flair, Simon Gratz’s trio of speedy senior guards made more than their share of steals in Saturday night’s Public League championship game.
But as far as Math, Civics and Sciences Charter School junior Nisine Poplar was concerned, the biggest theft occurred before the tip at the Liacouras Center.
“I was robbed,” Poplar said of not earning the season’s most valuable player award in voting by the league coaches announced earlier in the week.
Poplar all but demanded a recount as MC&S won the first Public League title in program history with a 73-68 victory over Gratz before a spirited crowd at Temple University.
The 6-foot-4 Poplar, who only began playing school-sponsored basketball last season, generated 23 points with six rebounds, three assists and two steals to earn game MVP honors.
“It’s OK,” Poplar said of the voting for regular-season league MVP, which went to Gratz senior guard Yassir Stover. “I got the ‘chip.’ That’s more important.”
The “chip,” of course, is the championship.
Poplar and seniors Tvon Jones and Naadhir Wood made several big plays down the stretch as MC&S held off Gratz’s late rally and earned the right to climb the ladder and cut down the net after the biggest league victory in program history.
Jones’ three-point play with 2 minutes, 35 seconds to play gave MC&S a 63-56 lead. Wood scored eight of his 10 points in the fourth quarter, muscling inside for two layups and going 4-for-4 from the foul line.
“I wanted to win so bad,” said the 6-8 Wood. “It’s my first time in the championship game and the team’s first time, too. I’m speechless.”
The victory sent MC&S (22-5) into the PIAA state tournament with momentum and confidence. The Mighty Elephants are the defending state champions in Class 2A, but they took special pleasure in beating a Class 6A program such as Gratz in the league title game.
“It’s really special,” MC&S coach Lonnie Diggs said. “This is something these guys have been working for all year.”
The crowd included former Gratz and NBA star Rasheed Wallace along with his legendary high school coach, Bill Ellerbee.
Gratz fans had plenty to cheer as senior guard Yasir Rowell led the way with 24 points and eight steals, wowing the crowd with his quickness and ball skills. Stover added 14 points, including nine in a gallant effort in the fourth quarter, while fellow senior guard Ed Harris generated nine points with three steals and four assists.
MC&S had beaten Gratz, 70-69, in overtime in the regular-season finale on Jan. 30. The teams seemed destined for another extra-session battle when they ended the first half and third quarter separated by just a point.
But MC&S took command in the fourth quarter.
“We knew we were the deeper team, and we thought we could keep running downhill and wear them down,” Diggs said. “We go 9, 10 deep, and it showed.”
Poplar made play after play in the fourth quarter. He grabbed three rebounds, lifted a steal and dished to Marcus Middleton for a layup and a 71-67 lead at the 30-second mark after Gratz’s Kyyon Gordon cut the lead to 69-67 with a steal and layup.
Poplar was 4-for-4 from the foul line in the fourth quarter. He also scored his 1,000th career point.
“I’ve been saying all along, he’s a special talent,” Diggs said. “He just gets better and better every game. He might be the best player in the city, definitely in the Public League.
“Not winning [league MVP] had him amped all week. He was determined to come out here and make a statement, and he did that.”
MCS 24 9 13 27 -- 73
Gratz 17 15 13 21 -- 68
MCS: Marcus Middleton 10, Nisine Poplar 23, Tvon Jones 18, Naadhir Wood 10, Zakee Fleming 6, Tayshon Nixon 6.