BY CHRIS MCMANES — DeMatha Basketball Coach Mike Jones said it was the offense. Markelle Fultz blamed the defense. Kellon Taylor cited rebounding and the offense.
They were all a little right.
Fortunately for the Stags, all the problems that plagued them in the first half of their Feb. 5 home game against Bishop O’Connell dissipated after halftime in a 57-42 victory. Fultz led DeMatha with a game-high 23 points, and D.J. Harvey added 10 points and nine rebounds.
The Stags scored just 18 points in the game’s first 16 minutes.
“We settled for jump shots; we settled for 3-pointers,” Jones said. “Some of those we’re going to take, but there were a few times where I felt as though we had opportunities to be more aggressive offensively, and we just settled for open 3-pointers because we took the path of least resistance. And that’s not us.
“We’ve got to be way more aggressive than that.”
DeMatha looked more like the Washington area’s No. 1 team in the second half after not leading until late in the third quarter. From that point on, it never trailed again.
With the victory, the Stags improved to 21-3 and 13-1 in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference. They will host No. 2 St. John’s (23-2, 13-1) at LT (SEAL) Brendan Looney ’99 Convocation Center on Tuesday at 6 p.m. with first place on the line.
DeMatha has won five straight, while the Cadets enter on a nine-game winning streak. St. John’s hasn’t lost since Jan. 9 when it fell to the visiting Stags, 59-57. The game will likely sell out, so get there early to ensure admission.
Fultz, who has signed to play at Washington, is averaging a team-high 19.2 points per game. Harvey, a heavily recruited junior, checks in at 11.6 ppg.
Anthony Cowan, Jr., a Maryland recruit, leads the Cadets in scoring (23.1 ppg), and Jeffrey Downtin, Jr. (Rhode Island) is averaging 15.2 points.
With former DeMatha Coach Morgan Wootten and his wife Kathy on hand to see their son, Joe, coach O’Connell, the unranked Knights brought momentum into Hyattsville from their 69-65 victory over then-No. 4 Gonzaga. They opened a 16-9 lead at the end of the first quarter and used a runner by Ako Adams with three seconds to go before the break to go ahead 26-18 at halftime.
O’Connell equaled its largest lead when it went up 28-18 just inside the third period. Fultz trimmed the deficit to six points by sailing through four defenders and hitting an off-balance layup. The Knights and Stags exchanged two field goals apiece, and when O’Connell called a 30-second timeout with 4:24 remaining in the quarter, it held a 32-26 advantage.
It disappeared over the next two minutes.
Fultz ignited a 9-0 surge with a layup he made despite losing control of the ball, and punctuated it with a half court steal and slam dunk. Harvey added a jumper off the dribble, and Fultz assisted Reggie Gardner’s corner 3-ball.
DeMatha, which began trapping full court, forced the Knights to call timeout to avoid a 10-second violation but then gave up an Adams’ dunk. Two free throws by Sherif Kenney drew the visitors to within 38-36.
An 8-1 run that featured Harvey assisting on Ryan Allen’s trey and scoring four points boosted the Stags’ margin to 46-39.
O’Connell cut the lead to five before Fultz scored eight of his team’s final nine points, including two more slam dunks. The senior, who was presented his McDonald’s All-American jersey before the game, said DeMatha’s late charge was fueled by its intensity on defense. The Stags allowed just 16 points after halftime.
“We’re trying to start off better in the beginning; that’s one of our pet peeves right now,” Fultz said. “We’re trying not to trail because eventually it’s going to bite us in the butt. Luckily, we’re just a good-enough defensive team to be able to come back, but we’ve got to stop it.
“It’s a big thing we’re trying to change, and I think it’s going to happen.”
Taylor, a senior who has received Division I offers to play football and basketball, cited boxing out as key to the Stags’ third-quarter turnaround.
“We were outrebounded in the first half, and we came out focused [after halftime], just boxing out and finding better shots,” Taylor said. “Our offense executed a lot better in the second half.”
The contest concluded a great week for the Stags. It began Sunday Jan. 30 with a victory at Gonzaga and included road wins at Bishop Ireton and Good Counsel. DeMatha is ranked 10th in USA Today’s Top 25. St. John’s is seventh.
Following the game against the Cadets, the Stags travel to Paul VI on Thursday and St. Mary’s Ryken on Saturday. The final regular-season home game is Monday Feb. 15 – President’s Day – at 4:30. The WCAC Tournament begins on the top four seeds’ homecourt Friday Feb. 19.