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James lives up to billing

High school hoops phenom puts on a show

By Stephanie Storm

Knight Ridder Newspapers

CLEVELAND

They packed in to see the show, 11,523 strong at Cleveland State's Convocation Center.

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There were nearly 100 media members present from all over the country, 10 NBA scouts and many local professional athletes.

The attention, the hype and national-television exposure gave it an NBA-like feel.

They billed it as the Progressive High School Classic, but what it really was was a mini-NBA production complete with all the big names.

It was LeBron James -- Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine poster boy at a ripe-old 17 years of age.

It was televised on ESPN2 with commentators Dick Vitale and Bill Walton.

It was Oak Hill Academy -- undefeated perennial power and the nation's No. 1-ranked prep team.

It was a basketball matchup made in hoops heaven -- but only half of it lived up to the hype in St. Vincent-St. Mary's 65-45 victory Thursday night.

James did his part, with a game-high 31 points and 13 rebounds, including a variety of monster dunks.

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In failing to find a way to stop James, Oak Hill (7-1) suffered its first loss of the season and just its sixth over the past five and a half years.

"There are a couple of things I know now," Oak Hill coach Steve Smith said. "I know that we are not the best team in the country because the best player in the country doesn't beat the best team. (James) made his team a lot better tonight."

He certainly gave senior teammate Romeo Travis a hand, racking up many of his team-high six assists with crowd-wowing, no-look passes that Travis easily converted into baskets for the bulk of his 17 points.

"Romeo Travis is a great athlete for our team," James said. "They'd run three guys at me and I'd kick it out. What Romeo Travis does is slash. And at 6-7 with long arms, I can see him real good."

The crowd got a good look at James, too, likely the NBA's next No. 1 pick.

After struggling to get going offensively early on, a frustrated James ripped out his mouth piece and threw his arms up, motioning to both sides of the arena for support.

The crowd responded.

"Usually when we come out, two-thirds of the crowd (is) against us," said James, who was finally able to help the Irish beat Oak Hill after losing the past two seasons."Tonight they were with us. There was a vibe."

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It took James a little while to find his vibe, as Oak Hill opened the game on a 10-3 run with James' first few jumpers clanking awkwardly off the rim.

Irish coach Dru Joyce II implored James to focus his action in the lane instead of out on the perimeter.

With the reminder, James slowly began to pour in the points.

In the first half, his offensive game was all easy layups and thunderous dunks. His 13 points helped stake St. V-M (3-0) to a 30-25 lead at the half.

"I thought we did a good job on him in the first half," Smith said. "We doubled him and forced him to make some bad decisions."

But James' outside shot began to fall in the second half. His two 3-pointers sparked the Irish, as they pulled away after a final run by the Warriors.

"I got the troops rallied and said, 'We can't let this happen. We have to go to work here,' " James said.

And they did.

As the Irish began to wear them down, the usually high-powered Warriors, who average 100 points per game, were held to two fourth-quarter points.

As the game clock began to tick down the final seconds, the crowd that James earlier had implored to get loud began chants of "OVERRATED!" toward Oak Hill.

Usually, it's the kind of thing directed James' way, as his team has increasingly found itself smack dab in the midst of the circus-like hype that follows their star player.

"It still hasn't sunk in yet," Joyce said. "It will a little later. I'm just happy for the way we played."

Before all the eyes of the basketball universe were focused on him on Thursday, even James admitted to taking a few minutes to consider the magnitude of the whole production.

"When I thought about it, I'm like, 'It's just crazy,' " he said.

While it was crazy for James and the Irish, it was well worth it.

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