By CHRIS McMANES — Mike Jones knew it was coming. While his newly crowned Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC) champions waited patiently inside their Bender Arena locker room on Feb. 26, Jones knew a water bath awaited him. He was right.
Leaving his suit jacket on, the DeMatha basketball coach drew an early reprieve when he opened the door. Once he started jumping around, however, the dousing began. You can’t blame his players for their exuberance.
It has been seven years since the Stags captured the WCAC championship. This one, the program’s 40th conference crown, came in a thrilling 54-53 victory over reigning champion Gonzaga. It was the longest title drought in school history since DeMatha won its first Catholic league championship in 1961.
In Hyattsville, seven years felt like seventy years.
“We finally broke the drought,” 7-footer Hunter Dickinson said. “We finally got it done.”
The Stags only had to wait seven days for the opportunity to win another crown. They take on Rock Creek Christian Academy tonight in the Maryland Private School Championship. Game time is 7 p.m. at Riverdale Baptist in Upper Marlboro.
DeMatha is the second seed behind Rock Creek. Both teams won twice to advance to the final.
Following the Stags’ win over Gonzaga, Jones said his players had throughout the season felt the burden of high expectations that come with being the most dominant basketball program in the Washington, D.C., area.
“These guys have taken the weight on their shoulders for a lot of [our] teams that fell short,” Jones said. “They really embraced that and wanted to be the team that got us off the hiatus.
“I’m extremely proud of them. I know how much they worked for this.”
Earl Timberlake led DeMatha with 14 points, seven rebounds and three blocks. Dickinson had 12 points, nine boards and two steals. Justin Moore, coming off a career-high 34 points in the WCAC semifinals, scored 11 points and added six rebounds and three assists.
The game, at American University, was extremely well-played. The two teams combined for just nine turnovers.
Timberlake, a sophomore who attended Rock Creek Christian last season, scored seven of the Stags’ final eight points. Down five with 4:10 to play, Timberlake ignited DeMatha’s late rally with a three-point play. Moore then hit 1 of 2 free throws to pull the Stags’ within 51-50.
After DeMatha’s Josh Wallace corralled a defensive rebound, Timberlake nailed a contested 3-pointer off the dribble. Jones immediately called a 30-second timeout with the Stags up, 53-51. It was their first lead since late in the third quarter.
Wallace missed a layup with about 1:25 to go, leading to a 2-on-1 runout that Myles Dread punctuated with an assist to a driving Josh Watts. Those points would be Gonzaga’s last.
“We locked in and made sure they didn’t get any open looks,” Moore said. “Great team defense.”
Timberlake made 1 of 2 from the charity stripe for his club’s final point. He subsequently grabbed a Dread misfire, was fouled and missed the front end of a 1-and-1. When asked if his nerves got to him as he toed the line in the fourth period, Timberlake at first played it off. He then fessed up.
“I was a little nervous,” he admitted. Fortunately, his errant shots didn’t cost his team the title.
“Earl makes the game-winning free throw after hitting the 3 that [took] us from being down to being up,” Jones said. “He made huge plays for us.”
The Eagles called timeout with 21.8 seconds remaining to set up the go-ahead shot. They never got it off. Dickinson salted the victory with a steal beyond the free-throw line. He was fouled but also missed the first of a 1-and-1.
The game clock showed no time remaining. The officials conferred and put 1.8 seconds back on. It’s a good thing for DeMatha the clock originally ran out. Otherwise, the Stags could have been assessed a technical foul for players leaving the bench area.
DeMatha secured the win when Dickinson stole a pass with about three seconds remaining, and the Eagles’ final, desperation shot bounced off the backboard.
The heave from beyond halfcourt came a little too close to breaking the Stags’ hearts once again in the title game. In 2015, Gonzaga rallied from a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit to beat DeMatha, 77-68, in double overtime.
“I watched [the final shot] and just prayed to God it didn’t go in,” Moore said.
Allin Blunt, one of the area’s top unsigned seniors, had five rebounds and led all scorers with 19 points. He tallied 10 straight to put the Eagles on top, 46-42, at the 5:47 mark. Dread, who will play at Penn State, added 10 points, six rebounds, three steals and two assists.
DeMatha lost in the tournament semifinals in 2017. Moore’s 34 points in this year’s semis came in a 74-63 win over Bishop O’Connell. The junior, who missed most of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, said winning his first WCAC championship was “definitely” his biggest thrill in basketball.
It was pretty thrilling for Jones, too. The coach, who took the reins of the Stags in 2002 following the retirement of Morgan Wootten, won his seventh league crown in 16 years. Jones was asked if this championship felt any different than the others.
“It’s been so long since we won one,” he said, “it feels like the first one.”
Pollsters impressed with DeMatha’s win
The Stags (29-5) jumped from No. 2 to No. 1 in the latest Washington Post Top 20. Paul VI fell from the catbird seat after losing to Gonzaga in the semifinals. The No. 3 Panthers went through the WCAC regular season undefeated (18-0). The Eagles are ranked second and O’Connell 10th.
The USA Today Super 25 Computer Rankings has DeMatha 17th in the nation.
Two more titles ripe for the taking
The Stags opened play in the Maryland Private School Championship on March 1 with a 48-46 victory over Capital Christian. Earl Timberlake (22 points) won it for DeMatha on a tip-in. He scored 13 points Saturday at Largo High School to lead the Deer Men past Riverdale Baptist, 67-51. Timberlake played last year at Rock Creek, the Stags’ opponent in tonight’s 7 p.m. championship game.
DeMatha will end the season March 8-10 where it usually does, in the 58th annual Alhambra Catholic Invitational Tournament at Frostburg (Md.) State University. Gonzaga is the reigning champion. Paul VI and O’Connell are also in the eight-team field.
The Stags will meet St. Maria Goretti of Hagerstown on Thursday at 7:30 p.m.
Hunter Dickinson and Justin Moore were named first-team All-WCAC. Gonzaga’s Myles Dread was also among the honorees. Xavier Johnson (O’Connell) was chosen Player of the Year. Coach of the Year honors went to Paul VI’s Glenn Farello.
Will finding his way
Will Turgeon, Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon’s eldest son, did not play in the championship game against DeMatha but often comes off the bench for the Eagles. He has reportedly narrowed his college choices down to Susquehanna and Catholic University. Both teams compete in the NCAA Division III Landmark Conference.
Mark Turgeon and Catholic Coach Steve Howes’ teams have played each other twice in the past five years. The 2013 contest was an exhibition contest. They played in the regular season this year. The Terrapins won, 76-59.
Jay Howard scored a game-high 20 points for the Cardinals and was named Landmark Player of the Year.
Jaguars in the house
Both Gonzaga and DeMatha have former St. Jerome players. Thai’re Vance plays for the Stags and Malcolm Dread for the Eagles. The pair played under Joe Sego and helped lead the Jaguars to the 2015 CYO 14U Mid-Atlantic City Championship.
How’s that for a birthday present?
DeMatha junior Carsten Kogelnik’s mom, Robin, had two reasons to celebrate on Feb. 27: The Stags’ championship came on her birthday. Carsten splashed 2 of 4 3-pointers in the title game. He finished with eight points, all in the opening nine minutes.
Chris McManes (mick-maynz) covers DeMatha basketball for the Hyattsville Life & Times.