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AVIANO, Italy — An expected showcase for the Naples High boys turned into a basketball game Saturday night.

The Wildcats mercy-ruled Sigonella in the semifinals earlier in the day, avenging their only loss of the season. With two victories already this year over Aviano, its Mediterranean Basketball Tournament championship game foe, Naples appeared to be on its way to another blowout.

But the Saints, outsized and less experienced, hung in the game to the surprise of many onlookers before falling to Naples 67-57.

The two opposing coaches were among the few who expected a close game.

“It wasn’t closer than we expected,” said Naples’ Richard Elliott. “Aviano has a very strong program, and when you play for a championship, it’s going to be very competitive.”

“I thought we were going to beat them,” said Aviano’s Ken McNeeley, who started four sophomores and a junior, all under 6 feet tall. “I’ve never coached a basketball game in my life I didn’t think I was going to win.”

Even McNeely must have had his doubts early on, though.

Naples, behind 12 points from Rashawn Lynch, took a 27-16 lead after one quarter, seemingly scoring at will. Naples led 45-26 at halftime.

Aviano had no answer for the Wildcats inside, with 6-6 center Mark Pearyer and 6-3 forward Kalani Kamanao towering over Aviano’s frontline. The Saints also couldn’t match the quickness of Naples point guard Aniel Pablico, who finished with a team-high 19 points.

But the Saints, aided by foul trouble to Pearyer, mounted a series of comebacks in the second half. Three free throws from Dustin Miller — fouled on a three-point attempt — cut the deficit to 60-52 with 3:33 left.

The Wildcats, who lost in the tournament final game a year ago, were not to be denied. Pablico’s three-point shot killed the comeback, and Naples went on to the win.

“Today, we got a good chance to see what kind of team we are,” Elliott said. “There were a few parts of the game where we played excellent. And other parts where we didn’t.”

Some of that was due to Aviano’s scrappy defense. Carl Cephas finished with a game-high 12 rebounds, scored 14 points and also blocked three shots. Miller, the tournament’s most valuable player, led his team with 24 points.

Lynch, whose defense limited Miller to six first-half points, had 14 points and a team-high eight rebounds for Naples.

Both teams travel to the European championships in Germany this weekend.

Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for almost 38 years.
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