BY CHRIS MCMANES — DeMatha Basketball Coach Mike Jones notched his 400th career victory last week. If he gets to 403 Monday, his Stags will be Washington Catholic Athletic Conference champions. But Jones isn’t looking past tonight’s WCAC quarterfinal matchup with Bishop O’Connell.
“We’ve got to figure how we’re going to beat them. I don’t think we have the luxury of thinking beyond that point,” Jones said. “So I don’t know what a run [to the title] is right now. I want to win one game.”
Tipoff is 4:30 p.m. at DeMatha’s Looney Convocation Center. The Stags (21-7) are seeded fourth. The Knights (19-9) are fifth. The teams split during the regular season, each winning on the other’s home court. Tickets are $5 at the door.
In other tournament action tonight: top-seeded Paul VI (PVI) hosts McNamara at 7:45 p.m.; Ireton travels to second-seeded Gonzaga at 7:30 p.m.; and third-seeded St. John’s hosts St. Mary’s Ryken at 8 p.m.
The winners will meet at American University on Sunday, beginning at 4:30 p.m. The girls championship game is Monday night at 6 p.m. The boys follow at 8 p.m.
Any of the top six teams have a legitimate chance to win the WCAC championship. Good Counsel Coach G.J. Kissal, whose team lost in one of Wednesday’s play-in games, found out firsthand just how tough the WCAC is this season. It was his first in the league as a head coach after a successful four years at Clarksburg (Md.) High.
“I think it’s the best high school basketball conference in the country,” Kissal said following his team’s 47-point loss to the Stags in Hyattsville on Jan. 26. “Every night presents a unique challenge physically, mentally [and] emotionally. That’s what makes it the best.
“It’s got great coaches, great talent and kids that [love basketball and work hard]. That’s what makes it so special.”
Jones, in his 15th year since taking over for the legendary Morgan Wootten, picked up win No. 400 in DeMatha’s 82-75 victory over Gonzaga on Feb. 16. Senior Ryan Allen, who will play at Delaware, pumped in a career-high 34 points. D.J. Harvey (Notre Dame) added 25.
The Stags have lost twice since then, both on the road and by double figures. The point differential doesn’t concern Jones.
“If we don’t foul at the end, neither one of those are double-digit losses,” he said. “I don’t think we play the point spread. We play to get something out of every possession.”
DeMatha came up with too many late empty possessions in its 72-59 loss to PVI in Fairfax, Va., on Feb. 20. The Stags led by as many as eight points early largely on the strength of 3-pointers by Allen, Carsten Kolgenik and Harvey. The Panthers took a 46-43 lead into halftime and never trailed again.
PVI increased the margin to 10 points with under four minutes to play. The Stags trimmed the lead to six and had a chance to slice into it further when Connecticut recruit Josh Carlton blocked a shot in the lane.
DeMatha, however, turned the ball over. The Panthers put an exclamation point on their senior night victory when sophomore Anthony Harris went in for a fastbreak slam dunk over Harvey.
“That was impressive,” PVI Coach Glenn Farrello. “I’ve had some high-flyers over the years, but that was fully contested by one of the best athletes in the country. Anthony didn’t back down to that challenge.”
Brandon Slater led the Panthers with a game-high 25 points. Harris had 20. Harvey and Allen paced the Stags with 15 points apiece.
A Tough Chore
It’s easy to say that the team that heats up offensively at this time of year will win its tournament championship. When offenses go cold, however, great teams can turn to their defense, rebounding and taking charges and grabbing loose balls.
Farrello, who’s in his tenth year at Paul VI since coming over from Eleanor Roosevelt, said the team that wins the title is going to have to display poise and maturity.
“Whoever wins this is going to battle every single possession,” he said. “They’re going to get those loose balls. They’re going to limit the other team on the glass. There’s going to be a toughness and grit to it.
“Yes, you need to hit shots, but it takes toughness and grit to hit shots in a big moment.”
College scouts and local media will be on hand tonight through Monday to see who emerges victorious.
“More teams now than ever have a chance to win the whole thing,” Farrello said. “They can just get on a run and put three games together. I think that’s what’s interesting about this year.”
Getting Ready in Hyattsville
DeMatha doesn’t have to look too far to find inspiration for righting the ship and capturing the WCAC championship. In 2014, PVI lost two of its final four games heading into the tournament, including a senior night loss to the Stags. The Panthers responded by winning all three games by 10 or more points and taking the title.
Marcus Derrickson, who led St. Jerome to the CYO Mid-Atlantic City championship in 2011 and is now at Georgetown, was the star of that PVI team.
“Mike [Jones] will get his guys ready for a playoff push,” Farrello said. “That’s a gritty bunch over there, too.”