By CHRIS McMANES — Lesson learned.
On Dec. 8, in a home game against IMG Academy, currently the fourth-ranked team in the nation, DeMatha lost an early 12-point lead and gave up a late 7-0 run in an eventual 75-68 loss.
The Stags put a kibosh on the same scenario Jan. 10 against Washington Catholic Athletic Conference rival St. John’s. After building a 21-point lead, DeMatha saw it dwindle to seven late in the fourth quarter.
This time, however, the Stags made the plays necessary to gain the win. With their victory over The Heights on Tuesday, they improved to 15-1 and 7-0 in the WCAC. They host St. Mary’s Ryken on Friday night at 7:30.
“I’m happy, but I know that we can still play better,” DeMatha Coach Mike Jones said. “I’m looking forward to us doing that.”
Had Jones put together an easier nonconference schedule, his club might not have been sufficiently battle tested to pull out the win over the Cadets. He wants his players to compete against great local, regional and national competition to better prepare it for its ultimate goal – a 41st Catholic league championship.
“All the good nonconference and conference competition we play prepares us to be in position to win the WCAC,” Stags senior Justin Moore said.
Jones thinks this year’s schedule is even tougher than the usual high-quality slate of opponents he assembles.
“I’d like to say we’ve played one of the toughest, if not the toughest, high school schedules in the country,” he said. “This is what guys come to DeMatha for. Our kids wanted to do this.”
In addition to IMG, the Stags have faced and defeated tough competition against Roman Catholic of Philadelphia, Guyer High of Denton, Texas, and Norcross (Ga.) High. Locally, they pulled out a tough 83-75 win at Eleanor Roosevelt. The Raiders are ranked eighth in the DMV.
Moore, who will play at reigning national champion Villanova next year, said the loss to IMG also helped the team win the DeMatha Christmas Classic, 56-54 over No. 5 Wilson. The overtime victory came on a buzzer-beater by Earl Timberlake. The Tigers have 6-foot-9 twin towers Makhi and Makhel, who will play for Mark Turgeon at Maryland next year.
“The Wilson game was kind of similar to IMG,” Moore said. “Both games were real tough in the second half. In the IMG game, we didn’t close it out, but against Wilson, we grinded it out and won.”
The Stags appeared to be in control against St. John’s with a 58-37 third-quarter lead at Looney Convocation Center. But the Cadets scored the next 14 points and trailed by just seven heading into the final frame.
The DeMatha defense, highlighted by Timberlake and Moore blocks leading directly to fastbreak points, ensured they would get no closer.
“Our defense clicked, and it turned into instant offense,” Jones said. “Sometimes it doesn’t happen that way. We’re a work in progress. We just want to keep getting better. Today was better than Tuesday [against Gonzaga]. We hope [our next game] is better than today.”
Moore scored a game-high 18 points against St. John’s. Jahmir Young added 17, Hunter Dickinson 16 and Timberlake 14.
Jones attributed the Cadets’ resurgence to its offensive rebounding.
“We were doing a good job of contesting [their shots] and limiting them to zero offensive rebounds,” he said. “Then we didn’t do that anymore and they were able to get back in the game.”
Moore also led the Stags in scoring against Gonzaga with 13. Timberlake and Young had 12 each, and Dickinson tallied 11.
DeMatha’s upcoming schedule will include five games in nine days, each two days apart. Four are on the road.
On Jan. 21, the Stags will travel to Springfield, Mass to face undefeated La Lumiere, the No. 1 team in the nation. Then they travel to Archbishop Carroll before hosting No. 3 Bishop O’Connell. From there, it’s on to Bishop McNamara in a weather-related makeup game. The gauntlet ends in Fairfax, Va., on Jan. 29 with a contest at No. 2 Pope Paul VI. The Panthers are also undefeated in the WCAC.
After La Lumiere, DeMatha’s remaining games are all against conference teams. The league is poised to live up to its billing as the top high school basketball conference in the nation.
“It’s a normal WCAC season,” Jones said. “It’s a dogfight with everybody.”
Chris McManes (mick-maynz) has won three national awards writing about DeMatha Catholic High School.