The friendly trash talking began as soon as the teams entered the gates of Courtney Callender playground on West 131st Street and Fifth Avenue in Harlem. The Uptown Challenge high school division final was to be a battle between the 17-and-under New Heights White team and its 16-and-under counterpart.
“They were saying how they were going to blow us out and beat us by a lot,” New Heights Blue’s Troi Melton of Cardinal Spellman said.
As volunteer assistant Henry (Skip) Thomas, who coached the younger team, was taking pictures before the game he was being kidded that he was taking the “before” shot of the second-place team.
“They were just warming up real hard to lose,” said Aquinas’ Sade Jackson, the White team’s point guard said.
Ultimately, the elder squad prevailed, 30-26, to take the title Sunday afternoon. Jackson scored eight points and Cori Coleman added six. Melton led the Blue team with seven and St. Francis Prep’s Jenna Hallaby added four. Rock Rosa, who coaches both teams during the AAU season, chose to sit and watch as his daughter Ashley, also a volunteer assistant, and Thomas coached the teams.
“It was nice to be a fan and actually get what we worked so hard for throughout the summer,” said Rosa, who couldn’t help but bark instructions to both team throughout the contest.
The game was back and forth for two quarters with the older squad leading by one at the half. The Blue team went on a 10-0, third-quarter run to take a 25-17 lead behind Melton and Halaby, who stole a ball at halfcourt and went the length of the court for a layup.
“We couldn’t get a shot for anything,” Jackson said. “When they went on their little run I knew we had time. We just needed to get a few shots [to] get us going and we [would] be fine.”
Jackson, who helped lead Aquinas to the CHSAA Class B state final last season, then provided the spark her team needed during a decisive, 11-0 run by attacking the basket and finding open teammates. Her layup early in the fourth tied the score at 26. Coleman’s put back shortly after gave the White team the lead for good.
The game was nothing new to the two teams, who play each other almost three times a week at practice. This one just meant a little more.
“In practice we just work each other hard,” Jackson said. “We couldn’t play around too much because we didn’t want to lose to them. It wasn’t like practice because if they would have won they would have come talking about it at practice.”