Firebirds Exert Their Will As School Of The Future Employs Staunch Defensive Effort, Bounces Columbia From PIAA-3A Bracket
Written by: Andy Herr on Sunday, March 8th, 2020
Without a shadow of a doubt, the PIAA state basketball tournament never ceases to fail in providing with its fair share of tantalizing and attractive matchups. That said, perhaps no other round within the dozen boys’ and girls’ statewide brackets comes with more appeal than that of the opening round of the two-week march onward towards Hershey’s Giant Center. Sure enough, this year too had once again delivered a mammoth punch in terms of pitting teams from all corners of the state against one another that may not have even have had the slightest idea on where to point to on a map in regard to where their opposition hailed from, or even if that the school itself even existed. After all, one only need to look at the 3A bracket for further proof of that.
Within this year’s PIAA-3A field, one matchup that might have caught the eye of collective high school hoop heads, particularly on the eastern side of the state, was seeing the Columbia Crimson Tide travel down to Philadelphia to tangle with School of the Future.
In short, the opening round affair between the Tide and School of the Future was one that came with a prevailing sense of intrigue. Why? Well, aside from the fact that Columbia, a team that has steadily been back on the rise over the last handful of years that has fearlessly taken on a who’s who list from both the Lancaster-Lebanon League and District 3 alike now testing their mettle inside the cauldron that is one of the best basketball cities known throughout the free world, the early Saturday afternoon matchup inside South Philadelphia High School between these two was also a matchup of an esteemed and prestigious program going toe-to-toe against a fast-rising up and comer.
If you’re from the Lancaster area of the state, chances are that you already recognize and appreciate that Columbia boys’ basketball for being what it is: One of the more cherished brands that can be found around the entire mid-state’s footprint. Aside from their fans who seem to always travel both and near and far to support the Crimson Tide, they certainly do so with good reason considering that the Crimson Tide once gave many of those same fans a ride to remember with by ultimately hanging a state championship banner inside the school’s gymnasium back in 1987.
Their opponent on Saturday? Well, albeit at no fault of their own doing, School of the Future certainly could not boast such an illustrious history as that of their counterparts.
If the saying, “The future is now,” were to ring true in terms of Philadelphia high school basketball, the year would have been 2006. Why 2006? For that is the year in which School of the Future opened its doors to the public, located just a few blocks away from the Philadelphia Zoo.
In terms of their basketball success, School of the Future has proven to be relatively successful even though the school itself is just over a decade old. In fact, within that short time, School of the Future has gone on to appear in three PIAA state tournaments along with testing themselves against some of the best teams that Philly has to offer, including their most recent time out which came in the form of a 69-52 runner-up finish against Neumann-Goretti in last week’s District 12 championship game.
Yet even for such a steady climb up the food chain that is the dog-eat-dog world of Philadelphia high school hoops, School of the Future had arrived in their southern portion of their home city on Saturday looking to make history. What type of history? Winning their first-ever state tournament game.
That said, Columbia came in equally as hungry in their own right, especially considering the fact that this veteran group of Crimson Tide players, even for all of their own successes to date, had yet to formally etch their names alongside esteemed Crimson Tide teams of yesteryear which they could do by picking up the school’s first PIAA win since 2015 against School of the Future on Saturday.
In the end though, this would prove to be an afternoon in which School of the Future would ultimately come of age.
Right from the onset, it was rather apparent that both Columbia and School of the Future would proceed to trade body blows back and forth against one another. In fact, just when Future would grab the lead at 6-3, something that occurred following a 3-ball knocked down by 6’2 sophomore forward, Yassir Muhammad, at the 5:10 mark of the opening quarter, the Crimson Tide would remain undaunted by going on to steal the lead right back in their own right at 9-6 following a pair of freebies cashed in at the charity stripe courtesy of Columbia 6’1 junior guard, Luis Cruz, with 2:35 now left to play in the first.
Again though, Future would have the answer as an impromptu 4-0 Firebirds’ rally thanks to back-to-back buckets by the sophomore tandem of Aleem Lee and Ali Brown respectively, gave Future the 10-9 advantage just one minute later.
However, Columbia would have the immediate rebuttal for that too as a pair of corner triples sunk by 6’1 senior forward, Ryan Redding, along with 6’4 junior forward, Brady Smith, on two consecutive Crimson Tide possessions, helped send Columbia into the second stanza as owners of the 15-10 cushion.
Truth be told, it had appeared that the Redding and Smith trifectas helped serve as a momentum boost for Columbia once inside the second frame considering that the Crimson Tide picked up right where they had left things off at the conclusion of the first quarter given the fact that Brady Smith proceeded to fire in yet another 3-ball, this time upping the Crimson Tide lead to a half dozen at 20-14.
But that would be where the game would do a drastic about-face.
Granted, although it may have seemed rather quiet and inauspicious given the fact that the energy inside South Philadelphia High School’s spacious gymnasium was rather lacking, the Firebirds had quickly drawn back even with their foes from Lancaster County as a trifecta knocked down by 5’10 sophomore guard, Abdoulaye Diallo, knotted things up at 20-20, before a smooth spot-up jumper knocked down by 6’4 sophomore forward, Hadir Boswell, gave School of the Future the 22-20 advantage the next trip down the floor for the Firebirds offensively.
From there, Future never looked back for the remainder of the afternoon.
Aided by the fact that the Crimson Tide now found themselves struggling mightily with a severe bout of the turnover virus thanks in large part to the full-court press slapped on by the Firebirds, Future ratcheted up the pressure defensively and played perfect offense to compliment it, ultimately vaulting themselves out to the 31-20 lead within the blink of an eye following a triple sunk by Ali Brown.
Now, even with all the momentum clearly going against them late in the first half, Columbia was certainly still well within striking distance heading into the intermission should they be able to right the ship considering the 31-22 lead which School of the Future held as both teams retired to their respective dressing rooms for the halftime recess.
Coming out of the break though, Future only continued to exacerbate their existing lead.
In fact, literally right from the onset of the third frame, the Firebirds pushed their cushion back up to a dozen at 34-22 following a 3-ball knocked down by Yaasir Muhammad, good for three more en route to his game-high 21-point performance to pace the Firebirds on Saturday afternoon.
Shortly thereafter, School of the Future’s lead had suddenly ballooned up to 42-24 following a jumper knocked down Hadir Boswell with over half of the third quarter already have expired, before a Michael Poole Jr bucket inside for Columbia helped the Crimson Tide quell the waters somewhat, making it a 42-28 affair just a few moments later.
That said, the Crimson Tide’s brief dance with momentum was certainly that, brief, especially considering that a take to the rack by Future’s Ali Brown just moments before the third quarter horn later gave the Firebirds the 20-point advantage at 52-32 heading into the final frame.
In the fourth quarter and with the finish line clearly in sight, School of the Future, namely Yaasir Muhammad, continued to aid in Columbia’s upcoming two-hour bus ride home feel even longer considering that his 3-ball and subsequent put-back on back-to-back Firebirds’ possessions then made it a 63-38 lead with the outcome nothing more but an official formality at this point.
However, even though the final few minutes of Saturday’s opening round state game likely felt rather long and arduous, it was not without its share of bright spots as far as Columbia was most concerned.
Granted, while it may have seemed like a little thing given the fact that the Crimson Tide’s season was on the verge of ultimately being put to rest, seeing 5’10 sophomore guard Robert Footman, a starter on last year’s Crimson Tide team, score his first points of the season on a jumper after being cleared following an injury suffered during the football season in the fall, was most certainly a bright spot amongst an otherwise dark and dreary afternoon for the Columbia contingent.
As mentioned though, with the outcome clearly well-decided by that point in time, it was rather apropos to see School of the Future’s Yaasir Muhammad fittingly help put the bow on the Firebirds’ first ever state tournament victory with a triple cashed in during the waning few minutes, making it a 71-46 final decision in favor of School of the Future once the buzzer blared out.
Without a shadow of a doubt, seeing such a promising season that came complete with a clean sweep over their fellow L-L Section Five competition end in such an abrupt and hard fashion was certainly difficult to process for Columbia and their ever-present fanbase who made the trip to Philadelphia on Saturday afternoon. Afterwards, Crimson Tide head coach Kerry Glover understandably wasn’t one to mince his words on what he had witnessed either.
“The press killed us,” said Glover when trying to assess what had just transpired in terms of having his team’s season reach its conclusion against School of the Future. “(School of the Future) went to the press in the second quarter and I think we might have had like four turnovers in a row and we’re now down nine, so that hurt. Then, coming in at half talking about the turnovers and just being patient against the press, we come out and give up an 8-0 run. Especially on a day where you’re not making many shots, to fall down like that in the third quarter, it’s tough.”
“Some guys competed, but when you make it this far in this point of the season, you can’t have three to four guys play hard. We need everyone that steps on the court to play hard,” Glover added. “I told (his team) before the game, ‘Look, it’s a quiet gym. We might have 50 or 60 people for most of the game. You guys gotta play hard and create your own energy.’ I don’t think that’s something we did a good job of.”
“Offseason work,” Glover then said without a moment of hesitation on what will be his key takeaway from his team’s final loss of the 2019-20 campaign. “Guys have to get better in the offseason. I think that’s the biggest thing with this group is me trying to stress to those guys the importance of working in the offseason. We just didn’t. I’ve said it to those guys all season, so it’s not foreign to them. I told them, ‘Our execution and our preparation has to be that much better because we’re playing catch up to everyone who worked in the offseason.’ It’s just tough where numbers are low and on top of that, offseason participation, you’re playing catch up.”
And especially the way in which School of the Future went about their work, that might have been the most frustrating part in regard to how Saturday’s game went unfolded from Columbia’s perspective.
“It wasn’t anything that wowed you,” said Glover of the Firebirds’ persistent and gradual stranglehold of the scoreboard. “I don’t even know how many layups we gave up. (School of the Future) just kept going to the rim, attacking the rim. Guys were just way out of position no matter how much we talked about it.”
“I give credit to them,” added Glover of his team’s opposition. “Their guards were tough, solid, and knew where they wanted to get on the court. If they didn’t get there, they made one pass and someone was out of position or got beat.”
Yes, while Saturday’s outcome undoubtedly put a damper on Columbia’s season, the Crimson Tide is set to return a boatload of talent on next year’s roster as well, effectively making Columbia one of the preseason favorites not just in Section Five next season, but arguably the entire Lancaster-Lebanon League as a whole.
“We do have a lot of guys coming back,” said Glover while already looking towards the future of his program. “Having a healthy (Robert) Footman would be huge. That would be real big, but we still have to have the commitment to work no matter what in the offseason.”
“With this returning group and a couple of young guys that will be freshmen next year, they’re competing hard,” he added. “That group has the work ethic. Like they’re at (Spooky) Nook playing this weekend. They compete. There’s a couple of guys that can be special in that group who honestly will be varsity players next year as freshmen, so I think that would help balance some things out with the guys that are leaving, but’s there’s still that learning curve.”
Needless to say, while the learning curve won’t totally be wiped away with offseason work alone, putting the investment in now will ultimately help sow the seeds for even more Crimson Tide prosperity next season as well. And if nothing else, the way in which Saturday’s season finale went down should help provide all the necessary fuel in order for Columbia to get right back into the gym in hopes of not just making it back to states again next season, but perhaps picking up some gold hardware and medals along the way before jetting off on what they hope will be a long journey throughout the PIAA brackets.
Follow LLhoops on Twitter @LLhoops