During layup lines and throughout much of the four eight-minute quarters at UNLV's Cox Pavilion, Bennett let Muhammad hear it as he was swarmed by several defenders, notably lanky, athletic wing Winston Shepard. During the pivotal third quarter in which Findlay put Saturday's game out of reach with a 20-5 burst, Muhammad was held scoreless. He tacked on 11 mostly meaningless points in the fourth to end with 19 (on 9-of-25 shooting), but the message had been sent.
Findlay versus Gorman may not be a fully heated rivalry in a team sense, but elite kids notice when they feel they're being slighted -- and they take much pleasure in making on-court statements about it.
"I played good defense because I took it personal," Shepard said after the game, which Findlay won 73-61. "Our coach pointed out some stuff and showed us what the media were saying and what people were trying to say -- [Muhammad's] unstoppable and this and that. I just wasn't buying into that, to be honest with you guys, and so I took I personal and tried to do the best job I could do."
True rivalries between elite prep teams are hard to quantify, since annual roster turnover and travel team associations create conflicted messages. Shepard and Muhammad actually have been AAU teammates on a loaded Dream Vision team based out of San Diego. So even though Gorman and Findlay Prep are in the same urban center, they don't occupy the same spheres.
Gorman is the local powerhouse, a high school juggernaut that regularly wins league and Nevada state championships. Findlay is the outsider, a team that's physically stationed in Vegas (actually suburban Henderson, Nev.) but plays a national schedule of tournaments and made-for-TV matchups against other prep powers with kids lured in from outside the area. Gorman has cheerleaders and fans who packed sections of the arena. Findlay has each other.
"We knew coming in the crowd was against us," said Findlay guard Dominic Artis, an Oregon committed point guard who was the best player on the floor in the contest. "We don't really have that many fans. It's not our fans that come out. We go through adversity every day."
Findlay also had the knowledge that it has the better, deeper roster. Along with Bennett (No. 7 in Rivals150), Shepard (No. 40) and Artis (No. 52), the Pilots also have No. 13 Brandon Ashley, an Arizona commit, and point guard Nigel Williams-Goss (20 points vs. Gorman), an excellent student considering options from the Pac-12 and Big 12 to Harvard.
With so many star players and exposure to many others -- Findlay took down Chicago powerhouse Simeon and Class of 2013 No. 1 player Jabari Parker the week before -- this meeting took on a very one-way feel. It was clear what it meant to the Gorman students, who stood and stomped and chanted throughout the contest. Diplomatically, the Findlay kids tried to respect it as a rivalry showdown, but ended up spinning it as just another game for them, which it would have been if not for Muhammad's presence and the hype that follows him (retweeted generously by @phenom15balla on Twitter).
The nation's No. 1 player? The label's nice, but anyone who has followed prep hoops (or has read George Dohrmann's seminal Playing Their Hearts Out) knows how political rankings can be. Findlay's players, at least on Saturday, were more interested in being the No. 1 team. That, and shutting down (and shutting up) Muhammad.
"Shabazz works extremely hard and has put himself in position to be the best player in the country, but as kids or competitors, that gets to guys," Findlay coach Mike Peck said after the game. "It's like ... 'I'm working hard, too. I'm working hard on my game.' So I think just from a competitive kid standpoint, that's what happens, and you know what? If that makes our kids play a little bit harder and a little bit better, I'll take it."