In the final boys’ basketball notebook of the season, we cover DeMatha and Gaithersburg
No. 1 DeMatha ended 2017-18 with a trifecta of championships: Standing behind the bleachers, adjacent to Gonzaga’s court, DeMatha Coach Mike Jones reflected on his team’s effort to upend Gonzaga in that mid-February contest, which pushed the Stags ahead of the Eagles in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference standings with just two regular season games remaining.
DeMatha had been one of the area’s top teams throughout the season. The Stags boasted one of the region’s deepest rosters, stocked with young talent.
But they had hit a “plateau,” Jones said, in mid-to-late January, losing to Gonzaga, Paul VI and O’Connell in conference play, so the coach was especially pleased to see renewed energy and urgency in that 57-53 victory over the Eagles.
Less than two weeks later, Jones had red eyes from crying tears of happiness as he reflected on beating Gonzaga again — this time for the No. 1 Stags’ first WCAC tournament championship since 2011, the first title in what would become a trifecta of crowning triumphs to close the 2017-18 season.
“Our guys know that’s just a whole different beast,” Jones said of the postseason after the Stags’ regular season win over Gonzaga on Feb. 13. “If we’re not going to have energy, you won’t last in the WCAC playoffs for very long.”
After outlasting the competition in the WCAC tournament, the Stags powered through three wins for the Maryland private schools championship, using a fourth-quarter surge to beat No. 3 Rock Creek Christian, 64-58, on March 5.
Then, DeMatha won the Alhambra Catholic Invitational Tournament championship in western Maryland this weekend, topping O’Connell, 69-57, in the final with a 41-29 scoring advantage in the second half. The Stags also beat Bishop Walsh in the opening game and Paul VI in the semifinals.
Sophomore center Hunter Dickinson earned tournament MVP honors with 18 points on 7-for-10 shooting in the championship, while junior guard Justin Moore, playing a full season after tearing his ACL in January 2017, added 16 points and sophomore guard Earl Timberlake had a double-double on 13 points and 10 rebounds.
“It’s just a great tournament to go to each year,” Moore said. “The talent is really great and it is exciting to sign autographs and talk to the folks over there.”
The Stags lose just four seniors, all of whom played reserve roles in games this season, and are set to return their top five leading scorers: Moore (16.6 points per game), Dickinson (15.8), Timberlake (11.3), junior guard Jahmir Young (9.2) and junior guard Carsten Kolgenik (5.3).
“It’s great knowing that we did all we were supposed to do this year,” Moore said. “We really went 3-for-3.”
With a stud freshmen duo, Gaithersburg is excited for the future: Gaithersburg Coach Jeff Holda doesn’t mean to be cocky, but he insists he isn’t surprised the Trojans’ season lasted as long as it did. In fact, he said, he expected it.
Never mind that the team’s best two players — Jao Ituka and Jordan Hawkins — were freshmen. The duo’s youth belied their poise and athleticism, which shined as Gaithersburg won 17 regular season games.
They overcame internal turmoil and outside distractions and defeated Bethesda-Chevy Chase in the Maryland 4A West region final, setting the stage for the program’s first state championship since 1998.
Perry Hall had other ideas, blowing out Gaithersburg in the state semifinal, 85-62. It was a painful loss, but one Holda believes will be a springboard for his returners.
“The next three years with [Ituka and Hawkins], they should be living up to that standard,” Holda said. “Anything less would be unacceptable.”
The Trojans started the season winning six straight, including a 76-57 victory over Bethesda-Chevy Chase that Holda said offered a glimpse into the team’s full potential. People were starting to learn Ituka’s and Hawkins’ names.
Things took a turn Dec. 27. Gaithersburg trailed Paint Branch by seven after one quarter, and by 12 at halftime. The young Trojans couldn’t keep up and lost, 103-75. The next day, the fell, 62-59, to Bowie. But, a silver lining: In the second half Hawkins went off, nailing five three-pointers.
Gaithersburg won seven of its next eight games, and on March 8, six buses of Gaithersburg students pulled up to Xfinity Center, where dozens more parents, former players and parents of former players were waiting to watch the Trojans try to advance to the state final.
Perry Hall ended that dream, before defeating Bladensburg, 56-52, in the 4A final.
Holda still isn’t over that loss, but he’s excited for the future. He pointed to the Trojans’ Feb. 13 win over Springbrook as proof. Star guard Matthew Balanc scored 19 points for the Blue Devils, but Ituka dropped 24 and Gaithersburg won, 86-77.
“I was a little concerned they might come in and push us around,” Holda said. “Instead we pushed him them around.”
“That game brought us back. We had a goal. We wanted to get to Xfinity.”