Told by a doctor last Tuesday that he would likely be sidelined for three to four weeks with a sprained knee, Magruder senior J.J. Epps launched into a rehab program that featured daily stretching and regular visits to the hot tub.
Eight days after being injured in a scrimmage, Epps bucked the odds just being in uniform as his team opened the season at home against fourth-ranked DeMatha. And when the 5-foot-6 guard got on the court, it was the Stags who couldn’t keep up in the sixth-ranked Colonels’ 69-65 victory.
Epps poured in 18 of his 22 points in the first half as the defending Maryland 4A champions avenged their only loss from last season, winning the public-private matchup in Derwood.
“I wanted to get back really bad,” said Epps, a fourth-team All-Met pick last season. “As soon as it got hurt, I called my trainer and told him he needed to see me because I was going to get back as fast as possible.”
Magruder (1-0) fell to DeMatha (0-2) last season by 17 points in a loss Coach Dan Harwood called “humbling,” but the Colonels executed their game plan to perfection on Wednesday, building a 16-point first-half lead and holding on down the stretch.
Harwood didn’t play anyone taller than 6 feet 4, but Magruder used quick ball movement to get open shots, particularly in the second quarter when a six-point deficit quickly turned into a double-digit lead. Epps keyed a run of 13 straight points and the Colonels never trailed after senior Ryan Rucker’s three-pointer made it 21-19 with 5 minutes 24 seconds left in the first half.
When the Stags tried to use full-court pressure to disrupt Magruder’s offense late in the half, Epps took over with several highlight-reel plays, including a pretty floater over DeMatha’s 6-8, 275-pound center, Beejay Anya.
“I didn’t expect [Epps] to miss this one,” said senior guard Nick Griffin, a George Washington recruit who added 16 points. “It’s a big game, and he’s just a warrior. He fights through anything, so I knew he was going to play.”
Meantime, DeMatha struggled without its top guard, senior Jairus Lyles, who has been nursing a dislocated toe. The VCU-bound guard played in the team’s season-opening loss in Chicago on Saturday and scored 18 points but aggravated the injury.
The Colonels kept the ball away from Anya with plenty of defenders sagging into the paint to help. The North Carolina State recruit didn’t record his first shot until midway through the second quarter. He got into foul trouble in the second half when he was whistled twice in a three-second span for bumping Epps and finished with seven points. Junior Corey Henson led the Stags with 18 points.
“We’ve just got to improve,” DeMatha Coach Mike Jones said. “. . . We’re going to be a work in progress all season long.”