BY CHRIS MCMANES — Nate Darling scored 50 points in the gold medal game of the Canadian Under-17 Boys’ Basketball Championship last August to lead Nova Scotia to the national crown. Tonight he will be looking to help DeMatha win the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championship.
“It would complete my career,” Darling said. “That’s all I haven’t won here the past three years. I’ve been to the finals twice. [Winning it is] everything I’ve ever wanted and been working for all year. So it would be big.”
Darling and five other seniors will try to end the Stags’ five-year WCAC title drought tonight at 8 p.m. at American University’s Bender Arena. For DeMatha, which has one of the most storied traditions in high school basketball, the hiatus is like an eternity.
“We’re all going to be ready [for the game],” Stags senior and McDonald’s All American Markelle Fultz said. “The seniors are [eager] to get that championship.”
DeMatha advanced to the championship game by rolling past Gonzaga 79-66 on Sunday in the WCAC semifinals at American in Northwest Washington. It sets up a showdown with St. John’s for bragging rights in what is arguably the top boys’ basketball conference in the nation.
Numerous college coaches will be in attendance.
The Stags (26-4), ranked third in the Washington area, split with the second-ranked Cadets (27-3) during the regular season. The traditional rivals won on each other’s home court and tied for the WCAC regular-season title with 16-2 records.
DeMatha senior Markelle Fultz, whose first chance to win a WCAC championship was dashed by Gonzaga last year in overtime, paced the Stags with 21 points Sunday. The dynamic combo guard and reigning WCAC Player of the Year scored 14 points in the first half as the Stags took a commanding 46-28 lead into the break.
Junior forward D.J. Harvey added 15 points for DeMatha. Darling scored 12 of his 14 points in the opening half in a game the Stags never trailed.
“When we execute and do what we do moving the ball and stuff, we’re pretty unstoppable,” said Darling, a University of Alabama at Birmingham recruit. “So I wasn’t surprised about the win, but it was a good, heavy win for us [playing] such a reat team.”
The Stags took their biggest lead, 44-22, with 1:28 left before halftime when Darling found Fultz underneath for a layup to punctuate a 4-on-1 fastbreak. DeMatha controlled the glass and played well in its man-to-man and variety of zone defenses.
Harvey opened the scoring with a baseline slam dunk, and Fultz sent a buzz through the mostly full gymnasium with a driving reverse slam to make it 9-4, Stags. After Fultz nailed a 3-pointer from the left wing and Harvey found Ryan Allen open for a corner trey, DeMatha had built a 17-8 lead.
Gonzaga’s stellar point guard Chris Lykes – who led all scorers with 28 points – splashed a 3 late in the first quarter to pull the Purple Eagles (22-7) to within 23-16. Gonzaga, which also split with the Stags during the regular season, would not be that close again.
DeMatha, which sank 13 3-pointers in its 95-53 victory over Good Counsel in a WCAC quarterfinal game Friday in Hyattsville, made 10 Sunday. Darling dropped in a pair during the second quarter, and after Fultz exited with his third foul at the 3:24 mark of the third period, Reggie Gardner splashed a 3-ball and assisted on one by senior Kellon Taylor.
“If we’re going to shoot the ball like that, I don’t think there are many people that can beat us,” Stags Coach Mike Jones said. “We shot the ball real well, and I’m very happy with that. Playing against Gonzaga always seems like it comes down to the last minute.
“So it was good not to have to go through that this time.”
When Allen beat a double team to find Harvey alone for a trey on the right wing, DeMatha entered the final stanza leading 60-44. Fultz, who will play for the University of Washington next season, showed he’s not just one of the top offensive players in the nation by blocking two fastbreak layups, the second one against Lykes with 2:15 to play.
“We did a good job of face-guarding [Lykes] most of the time when he didn’t have the ball,” Fultz said. “We boxed out well and [limited] them to one shot. That was the game plan, and we did a pretty good job of that.”
Anthony Cowan, who’s headed to Maryland, scored a game-high 19 points in St. John’s 63-56 victory over Bishop McNamara in the first semifinal. Fellow seniors Jeffrey Downtin, Jr. (Rhode Island) and Dejuan Clayton (Coppin State) contributed 12 points each.
USA Today ranks the Cadets the ninth-best team in the nation; the Stags check in at 17th. St. John’s has won three league championships since 1961, the first under Joe Gallagher in 1977 and the last under Paul DeStefano in 2000.
Jones said that early in the season DeMatha’s rallying cry was to win the 40th conference title in school history. That has changed.
“Now we just want to win one for these guys,” he said. “They haven’t won one yet, and for the seniors, this is their last opportunity.”