By CHRIS McMANES — No. 1 DeMatha had just let an 18-point lead slip into a four-point deficit over second-ranked Paul VI. The Stags needed someone to spark them or they were going to lose their second-straight game.
Senior Justin Moore, as he has done many times throughout his illustrious career on Madison Street, answered the bell. By the time the final second ticked off the clock of the Feb. 10 game, DeMatha had secured a 67-64 victory.
“He’s our leader, always has been,” Stags Coach Mike Jones said. “He’s as talented as it gets. I’m real proud of him. Going forward, we’re going to need more of it from him.”
Moore leads an eight-man senior class that will play its final home game at the Looney Convocation Center against Archbishop Carroll today at 5:30.
The Stags enter the contest 25-3 and 17-1 in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference. A win today or Tuesday at Bishop O’Connell will give the reigning WCAC champions the regular-season crown.
On Feb. 14, Moore was selected to play on the USA Nike Hoop Summit team. The 12-man All-American squad will take on a team of elite international players in Portland, Ore., on April 12.
Moore will be the fourth former Stag to play in the game, joining Markelle Fultz (2016), James Robinson (2012) and Quinn Cook (2011). Jones served as the USA head coach last season.
Moore averaged 16.6 points as a junior and was named first-team All-Met. In the WCAC semifinals against O’Connell, he scored a career-high 34 points.
DeMatha, coming off a 65-58 loss at No. 4 Gonzaga on Feb. 8, built a 36-18 lead over Paul VI with 3:50 to go before halftime. The Stags, who downed the Panthers in Fairfax, Va., 78-57, five days prior, appeared on their way to another double-digit victory.
But Paul VI is a resilient, well-coached team that has absorbed the loss of two of the top players in the nation to post a 22-6 record (17-2 WCAC). Sophomore Trevor Keels and freshman Knasir “Dug” McDaniel have emerged after season-ending injuries to senior Anthony Harris and junior Jeremy Roach.
The Panthers closed the half on a 12-2 run to trail by just eight points at halftime. Keels scored the final six points of the half. It was a preview of his performance in the third quarter.
The 6-foot-4 guard scored 11 straight points, nine on 3-pointers. His punctuating trey gave Paul VI its first lead of the game, 47-46, at the 2:26 mark of the third period. Moore’s long jumper off the dribble and a free throw by Josh Wallace allowed DeMatha to head into the final eight minutes down, 50-49.
Keels, who had 24 points by then, would only score three more. Jones said Moore requested to guard Keels as the team went to a man-to-man defense in the fourth quarter.
“When your best player in that situation, as long as he’s not in foul trouble, asks something like that, you’ve got to go with your gut,” Jones said. “My gut to said let him do it, and he did a great job.”
While cooling off Keels, Moore heated up offensively, scoring eight points in the final 6:40. He followed two successful free throws with a fast-break layup that senior Brown recruit Carsten Kogelnik started with a big rebound. After Keels made 1 of 2 foul shots, Moore and freshman Tyrell Ward hit layups to give the Stags a nine-point lead with under five minutes to play.
The Panthers weren’t done. McDaniel made three short driving layups and Keels followed his own miss in an 8-0 burst to slice the DeMatha lead to 63-62 with 1:10 to go.
Moore calmly sank two more free throws before Keels and Josiah Freeman missed 3-pointers. Stags junior Hunter Dickinson collected the second rebound and hit two from the line with 6.3 seconds remaining to seal the victory.
“We played better defense in the fourth quarter, especially on their ball screens,” Jones said, “and we made our free throws down the stretch.”
Moore a special talent
Jones calls Moore an “All-American-type player” who “did a great job in the fourth quarter. [Keels] had three points in that quarter, and you’ve got to attribute that to [Moore] and his ability to guard him. [Keels] is as talented as it gets. He really got it going. For whatever reason, he loves playing at DeMatha. He’s had some of his best games here. He’s an incredible player.
“In the fourth quarter tonight, [Moore] did a really good job on him.”
Moore, who missed most of his sophomore year with a torn ACL, is a silky smooth player who appears to play effortlessly. But don’t let his quiet demeanor and ability to play at a slow pace fool you. The 6-4 guard can kick it into a higher gear at will and make some of the quickest spin move and drives to the basket as anyone in the nation.
“He’s a key factor on our team,” said Williams, a senior guard who has accepted a football scholarship to Massachusetts. “He’s like the alpha dog. That’s what I like about him. He gets us going.”
Keels finished with 27 points. Moore had 14; 12 in the second half.
While the offers from big-time schools are pouring in for Keels, Moore has signed with Villanova. The Wildcats, who had an assistant coach in attendance, have won two of the past three national championships.
“They are two of the elite players not only in our conference, but in the country,” Paul VI Coach Glenn Farello said. “[Moore] stepped up, as you would expect from a senior. He’s a tremendous player. Villanova’s got a great player coming their way.”
Farello, who led his team to 32 straight regular-season WCAC wins before DeMatha snapped it on Feb. 4, said he enjoyed watching the matchup between Moore and Keels.
“They are high-level character kids who come from great families,” Farello said. “To see the success that they have in basketball is hopefully great for the young kids in this area to recognize how special they are and how humble they stay.”
In the Stags’ first area loss, Feb. 2 at Gonzaga, Moore scored just six points. He had more than that during the crucial stretch of the fourth period against the Panthers and is more concerned with the team’s success than his own.
“I didn’t play as well as I could’ve [against Gonzaga],” Moore said. “But things happen. It’s how you come back after a loss. I think we came back well. I responded well, my team responded well. We bounced back.”
Moore did his part to ignite the Stags to victory over Paul VI.
“We really needed to finish the win out,” he said. “As one of the leaders on the team, I know what it takes. I did my bit, had to grind it out and make plays.”
Moore doesn’t try to do too much.
“I let the game come to me,” he said. “I don’t force it or take bad shots. What’s there is there.”
Moore and junior Earl Timberlake have had to take on more ball-handling duties since senior Charlotte recruit Jahmir Young left the Gonzaga game with an ankle injury. He hasn’t played since.
“We really miss him a lot,” Moore said. “He does a lot for us. He can score, defend, he does it all. He’s really a great player for us. We really need him.”
Moore has a big fan in Farello, who has led the Panthers to two WCAC championships (2012, ’14) and coached former St. Jerome standout Marcus Derrickson.
“I’m going to be cheering on Justin for his time at Villanova,” Farello said. “He’s a great representative of WCAC basketball.”
Chris McManes (mick-maynz) covers DeMatha basketball for the Hyattsville Life & Times.