Apollo High School (25-3) has their sights set on winning another state championship this high school season, after a tremendous run in the early 2000's by the program. For this Apollo program, there was no better way to continue their state championship goal than to dethrone the two-time defending state champion Sunnyslope Vikings (18-9). The quest to win a state title should go through the defending state champion, and that is exactly what happened on Friday evening for Apollo, as they would face the 5A defending champions at home.
The match-up would become an absolute statement game for the top overall player and prospect in the 5A Division, Apollo High School's gifted 6-foot-7 senior wing Emmanuel Taban. Taban proved just how good he is and can be in an impressive performance that resulted in a game-high 28 points and (5) three-pointers, as he took over the game offensively for Apollo, and helped his program defeat Sunnyslope, 68-54.
The last time these two programs faced each other in the playoffs, it was two seasons ago, and resulted in a thrilling triple-overtime victory for Apollo. Apollo though would go on to lose in double-overtime in the 5A's State title game. This season though, Taban was not going to allow the same circumstance, as he would flat out take over the contest on Friday evening, and keep his and his team's own fate in his own hands.
This year's Sunnyslope team is very loaded with talent and has some very good prospects for the college level, but this group is still inexperienced and spent this season learning a lot about themselves. The Sunnyslope basketball program has been my favorite to watch over the recent years, as this program has been the absolute class of the state's 5A Division, similar to Apollo High School in the 2000's. But this is a new team surrounded by some young prospects - making for a very intriguing contest on Friday evening.
Slope would come out firing - looking to gain some sort of an early edge on Apollo, and knowing that it would be needed to slow down the Hawks at home. With Apollo struggling mightily from the field early, Slope would develop an 8-5 lead with 2:35 left to play in the period, after a floater in the lane by 6-foot-4 senior forward Ivan Palomar.
Apollo though would tie the contest with a minute to play in the period, after a three-pointer off the glass from 6-foot-2 senior guard J. Glover. Glover's three-pointer, even though off the glass, would ignite the Apollo offense and create a spark. Emmanuel Taban would then begin his offensive assault, and end the period with a three-pointer of his own from the corner to give Apollo a 13-12 lead after the first period.
That would be the ignition that Taban would need, as he would get it going - getting the crowd after many of his baskets on the evening. With 6:21 left to play in the first half, Taban would knock down a mid-range jumper, then travel the length of the floor and assist a teammate for a three-pointer, then make a nice cross-over dribble and a mid-range jumper over a defender, then follow that up with another deep three-pointer in the secondary break - pushing Apollo ahead 23-16, and giving the Hawks their biggest lead of the game.
Sunnyslope though has a superb winning tradition, and they would fight back hard to keep pace with Apollo and Taban's scoring outburst. After a three-point play opportunity from Taban, Apollo would go into the half with a 29-23 lead.
Both teams knew that this game would be a dogfight, so there were very few surprises for Sunnyslope Head Coach Ray Portela. While it was no surprise for Portela that he would need to slow down Taban in this contest, the Vikings still couldn't do it, as Taban would continue his momentum in the second half. After a transition layup from stud 6-foot-5 sophomore guard Paris Woods, and another three-pointer from another Apollo teammate, Taban would then drive to the basket for a left-handed layup around a defender, and then would cap that off with another big three-pointer - igniting the crowd at it's finest on the evening. Taban's outburst would push Apollo ahead big, 39-29, late in the 3rd period.
Again, Sunnyslope would fight back. After a big three-pointer from the corner from talented 6-foot-4 junior Xzavier Lino, the Vikings close the Apollo gap to (5) points, 41-36, after three quarters.
The fourth period would be a very interesting one for Sunnyslope, as they would fall back behind Apollo, and then earn a couple technical fouls which would put the game out of reach for the Vikings. After a three-pointer from the corner by Glover, which would give Apollo a nice 10-point lead with 6:59 left to play, the technical fouls would halt any run for Sunnyslope in the game's final period, and prove to be very too much for the Vikings to overcome.
Apollo would win the game 68-54, and would advance to the 5A State Semi-Finals - ending Sunnyslope's tremendous run of three-consecutive 5A state championship game berths, and winning the last two state titles.
Scouting Notes: The performance of Apollo's Emmanuel Taban on Friday evening was the best performance that I have seen from him in some time, and proved to me just how good this young man can become and the tremendous amount of upside that he possesses as a player. Taban is as versatile a lengthy wing prospect as there is in the state, and he should have a host of suitors this spring for his services. While it has been widely reported that Taban has liked the thought of Nevada and Texas Tech for himself, the gifted prospect is still wide open in his recruitment and should see many division-I programs that will love to land him for the spring. While very thin physically, Taban is a high-major division-I prospect and can play pretty much anywhere, so his net for division-I offers should become immense this spring, as more coaches realize that he is still open and available.