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Arkansas-bound Jordan Walsh wills first-year Link Academy past Oak Hill in GEICO Nationals quarterfinals

The McDonald's All-American put up a dominant showing in Link Academy's emphatic arrival to GEICO Nationals stage — a 81-67 win to end legendary coach Steve Smith's career.

Last spring and summer, Rodney Perry traveled around the country selling top high school prospects on a vision of competing for a national championship in upstart Link Academy’s first year as a varsity program.

“That was their goal,” Perry, Link Academy's head coach, said Tuesday. “That’s what they wanted to do, it’s the reason they came here. And that’s what we sold them on, and we’ve been able to do it so far.”

Consider it a vision fulfilled.

Perry and the long list of talent that followed him to the first-year national high school program in Branson, Mo. started hot and rode a string of high-flying dunks to a 81-67 win over 7-seeded Oak Hill Academy in the GEICO Nationals quarterfinals on Thursday at the Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers, Fla.

The loss ends the illustrious career of Oak Hill coach Steve Smith, who announced in February his 38th season at the helm would be his last.

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It was a game that featured three McDonald’s All-Americans: 3-seeded Link’s Jordan Walsh (Arkansas) and Julian Phillips (uncommitted) and Oak Hill’s Chris Livingston (Kentucky).

Two days after the annual showcase in Chicago, Link’s two burger boys were dominant, especially Walsh. Lots of attention was paid to the matchup between Walsh and Livingston, a burly, athletic 6-6 forward.

From start to finish, Walsh impacted just about every facet of the game.

The rangy 6-foot-8 Arkansas pledge scored 23 points on 9 of 10 shooting (1 of 1 from 3), grabbed eight boards, doled out seven assists and threw down several rim-rocking dunks to help the Lions pull away.

Phillips, who battled a stomach bug early in the week but played in Tuesday’s McDonald’s All-American Game, made most of his impact at the line. The 6-foot-8 wing went 10 of 12 from the line and finished with 20 points and six boards.

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Throughout the game, Oak Hill saw needed scoring bursts from dynamic senior combo guard Judah Mintz. Mintz, who is announcing his college commitment during one of the later games Thursday, led Oak Hill with 21 points and seven assists, shooting 6 of 10 from the field, 8 of 10 from 3.

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Link went up 11-1 and closed the first quarter on a 9-0 run to go up 27-14, led by nine early points from Walsh. Mintz found his rhythm in the second quarter, as Oak Hill outscored Link 19-7 and held it to 2 of 13 from the field to cut the deficit to one, 34-33, at half. 

Junior point guard Jordan Ross thrived in his first start. He dished out six assists in the first half, hit a second quarter 3 and dove on a loose ball that led to a fast break alley-top from Walsh to Phillips, who recently de-committed from LSU after Will Wade's firing.

Link coach Rodney Perry said Ross has been the team’s most improved player this season, citing his confidence, defensive progress and ability to command the offense.

“He’s vocal, he takes command of his team, he leads his team,” Perry said. “It’s a night and day difference with him.”

Oak Hill's zone continued to disrupt Link in the third quarter as it crawled back and took a three-point lead at the 5:43 mark. 

But Walsh took over, and Link Academy's length was ultimately too much. 

With 1:35 left in the third quarter, Walsh got a rebound and went 94 feet, the length of the floor, exploded down the lane and flushed a two-handed dunk and finished a backdoor alley-oop from Trey Green with two hands a few plays later to put Link up 59-52 at the end of the third quarter. 

The Lions out-rebounded Oak Hill 42-25 and shot 56.9 percent from the field. They will play the winner of top-seeded Sunrise Christian Academy and 8-seed Prolific Prep in the semifinals Friday at 11:30 a.m. PT.

(Lead photo by Samuel Mfinanga)