Rust was evident when the NEPA Elite Basalyga 17U boys team struggled to get into its offense for nearly 10 minutes when it opened its first season July 25-26 in the Pennsylvania Tip Off at East Stroudsburg University.
Once it was able to work through pressure, get the ball up court and begin running a half-court offense, however, the team’s improvement was immediate.
By the time the first weekend was over, the Basalyga team had won two of its first three games. The victories came by 15 and 20 points and the only came after a rally produced a shot at the tying basket at the final buzzer.
Giving up just 49 points per game and hitting 45 percent of its shots on offense, NEPA Elite looked much different than in its shaky first several minutes.
“We were kind of shaking off the rust almost,” coach Clay Basalyga said after the players on his AAU team competed for the first time since high school basketball was ended more than four months earlier because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. “We were kind of going too fast. Once we were able to get under control, we were able to put the pedal to the metal.”
Even though it was handing over extra opportunities to Heat Elite, NEPA Elite never slipped further than three points behind in its opener.
“One big thing I was happy with was our defense,” Basalyga said. “We had some principles and we stuck to them. As we went through the weekend, that was the key to us being able to win and being able to stay in the other game.
“In the game we lost, we were able to turn it up defensively in the last six minutes.”
Basalyga said he is confident in the scoring options for his team, which is preparing for its second weekend event.
“I was not too worried about that,” he said. “I was more worried about defending higher-level players.”
Those concerns were alleviated with the effort in the 17U Division Pool A.
Jason Shields, a rising junior guard/forward from Scranton, and Nick Nocito, a junior guard from Dallas, each scored in double figures in every game.
Austin Finarelli, another junior guard from Dallas, joined them twice and Jacob Anderson, a senior guard/forward from Abington Heights, joined them once.
Nocito and Shields each made six 3-pointers in the three games. Nocito shot 46.5 percent from 3-point range and 54.5 percent from the floor, the best figures among the five players who shot the most, while averaging more than 15 points.
Shields averaged a team-high 17 points and was second on the team with 17 total rebounds, 16 of which came on the defensive end. He hit all five of his free throws.
Harry Johnson, a 6-5 senior forward from Abington Heights, led the team in offensive rebounds (7), total rebounds (18) and blocked shots (3) while ranking fourth in points (22).
The junior guard combination from Dallas, Nocito and Finarelli, led the defense on the perimeter, each producing a team-high six steals.
Nocito also led in assists with 11, one more than Justin Smith, a senior guard from Pocono Mountain West. Despite often being the smallest player on the floor, Nocito was third in rebounds with 15.
Smith was also third on the team with four steals.
Scranton senior guard Johnny Rose, Holy Cross senior guard Doug Walsh and Holy Cross junior forward Jajuan Nicholls also contributed to the winning weekend.
A look back at the first three games:
NEPA Elite 67, Heat Elite 52
Nocito scored 23 points and Shields led the game’s two biggest runs while adding 22 points as the team debuted with a victory.
Following the sluggish start, NEPA Elite closed the first half with a 22-6 run to a 33-23 lead.
Shields scored 11 points in the run, which he started and finished with 3-pointers. In between, he hit a runner for a 19-18 lead and took a defensive rebound the length of the floor for a three-point play.
Heat Elite moved within three points as the midway point in the second half approached before Shields and Finarelli scored seven points each in a 20-5 run to put the game away, 63-45.
Nocito produced most of the offense until Shields sparked the runs. He had 15 points in the first half by going 6-for-7 from the floor and 2-for-2 from the line along with making his only 3-point attempt.
Nocito finished 9-for-12, making all three 3-pointers. He also grabbed six defensive rebounds, dished out four assists and made two steals.
Shields also led the team with seven rebounds, all defensive.
Finarelli scored 8 of his 10 points in the second half. He also had a team-high five steals and three assists.
Johnson made his last three shots, all in the second half, while finishing with eight points.
Team Elevation 54, NEPA Elite 51
Team Elevation took control with a big second-half run, then held off an NEPA Elite rally in the second of the two Saturday games.
After taking a 29-24 halftime lead, Team Elevation scored 10 straight points in what became a 15-2 to a 49-35 lead.
Shields, who led the team with 17 points while also grabbing 6 defensive rebounds, hit a 3-pointer with less than five seconds left to cut the deficit to three.
Johnson made a steal, leading to Nocito getting off a rushed shot from beyond midcourt at the buzzer. The last attempt fell short.
Nocito had 12 points and shared the assist lead of 4 with Smith.
Finarelli scored 10 points.
Johnson chipped in eight points, seven rebounds and three assists.
NEPA Elite 61, G2G Basketball 41
NEPA Elite opened leads of 6-0, 12-2, 17-4 and 31-13, then never trailed in the only game of the second day to complete its first event with a winning record.
Anderson led a balanced attack with 14 points on 6-for-7 shooting. He made his only 3-point attempt and his only free throw.
Shields added 12 points and Nocito had 11 while also contributing 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals.
Johnson, Finarelli and Smith all scored seven points each. Johnson led with eight rebounds and two blocked shots. Smith and Finarelli matched Nocito for the team lead with three assists.
The offense not only hit at 51.0 percent from the floor, but committed just eight turnovers, only five for the first 28-plus minutes while blowing the game open.