DeMatha's Justin Moore (Doug Kapustin for The Washington Post)

The Washington Catholic Athletic Conference tournament is famously hard to win, as the loaded bracket provides an arduous few days of high-level hoops.

But this season, the DeMatha Stags had more than a few reasons to feel good about their chances to defend their title. They had returned all five starters from last year’s championship squad and had the mix of talent and experience that is often necessary to make it to Monday night’s final. They surged through the regular season, took the top seed in the bracket and made it to the semifinals.

But a hot St. John’s team, led by senior guard Casey Morsell, surprised many by sending the Stags home. Morsell’s block on the final play of the game sealed a victory for the Cadets.

“For lack of a better word, we were shocked,” DeMatha Coach Mike Jones said. “We fully believed we were built for it, we were prepared for it. We had worked hard all season long. To not get back to the championship game and give ourselves a chance to repeat, it was heartbreaking.”

The team didn’t practice for two days following the loss, looking for time to decompress. The Stags would have to reset themselves quickly if they wanted to fare well in the second of their three postseason tournaments, the Maryland Private School Championship.

“When we’re in the game, we talk about next play,” Jones said. “So when we lost, it was, ‘Hey, we have to get ready for the next thing, or this one loss is going to snowball and missing out on one championship is going to snowball into missing out on two championships.’ ”

One week after the WCAC title game was played without them, the Stags completed their bounce back, racing to a title with three double-digit victories. They won Monday night’s championship game against Rock Creek Christian Academy, 85-53.

“We had a tough first game against St. Andrew’s but we got it done and then the last two nights we played like the DeMatha team we know we can be,” Jones said.

Junior big man Hunter Dickinson led the Stags with 20 points in the title game and took home MVP honors. DeMatha’s win helped boost them to No. 1 in this week’s Washington Post Top 20.

“The physicality of the game and what other teams have to do to compete with him, it’s very difficult,” Jones said of Dickinson. “For him to be as productive as he is, under those circumstances, is incredibly impressive.”

The program’s third and final postseason tournament is the Alhambra Catholic Invitational, an annual event based in Cumberland, Md., that will feature some of the WCAC’s best and some top teams from the Baltimore area. DeMatha will kick off the tournament with a game against St. Frances Academy on Thursday.

Michael Errigo

Dunbar hopeful for star sophomore

Three years ago, while coaching a D.C. middle school team, Damon Singletary noticed a 6-foot-5 player on the opposing squad who could handle the ball and shoot. That player was Christopher Mateo, and Singletary couldn’t wait for him to attend Dunbar, where he also coached.

Mateo made Dunbar’s varsity team as a freshman, and he averaged 8.3 points and a team-high 6.9 rebounds as a sophomore this season. With Singletary expecting a stronger D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association contender next season, he hopes Mateo will continue developing.

“The sky’s the limit,” Singletary said. “He wasn’t as strong as I would like him to be, but I got to realize he’s just a sophomore.”

With multiple first-year players and no true point guard on its roster, Dunbar (17-12) fell in the first round of the DCIAA and D.C. State Athletic Association tournaments by a combined four points. Last year, the Crimson Tide leaned on a group of five seniors.

Still, Singletary saw growth in Mateo, who averaged 2.9 points and 3.7 rebounds per game his freshman campaign.

Next year “we will be talented,” Singletary said.

— Kyle Melnick

Dale Lamberth’s 400th win is for SMAC title

A Gatorade shower on Coach Dale Lamberth was the beginning of Thomas Stone’s celebration after beating Great Mills on Wednesday for the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference title. As the Cougars carefully trod the messy court, there was another celebration in order: Lamberth’s 400th win of his head coaching career.

He was given a commemorative ball and took pictures with current and former players and coaches. Lamberth, who has been a head coach for 28 years, said that his journey has occasionally been trying. But his relationship with those around him motivated him to continue.

“There’s been many days where I felt enough was enough,” Lamberth said. “But players would tell me: ‘You can leave after I graduate. Don’t leave with that class, leave with our class,’ and it just kept going. The relationship with the players and coaches is what keeps me going.”

Lamberth’s latest leader has been Gary Grant, who’s averaging 22 points and 11 rebounds this season, team highs for the second straight year. Grant is 87 points from becoming the school’s all-time leader, which he could achieve if the Cougars advance deep into the playoffs.

“He just wants to be successful in the worst way,” Lamberth said of Grant. “What people see out on the floor is how he practices. He doesn’t slow down. As a result, he’s made other guys better.”

— David J. Kim

Freedom-South Riding topples Potomac Falls

Entering Monday night’s state semifinal game, Potomac Falls had lost just once this season, and it was against Freedom-South Riding, in the district tournament.

On an even bigger stage Monday, the Eagles defeated the Panthers again, 63-57, to advance to the VHSL Class 5 final in Richmond, where they’ll play Maury (24-3) on Wednesday at 2:30 p.m.

“We’re motivated. We’re not looking at records saying, ‘Oh, boy,’ ” Coach Justin Powers said of the Eagles’ mentality. “We’re confident.”

The Eagles (20-11) didn’t seem to be heading in a championship direction at the start of the season. After finishing 22-4 last year, they hovered around .500 for a while.

They turned it on in the playoffs, storming to a third-straight Potomac District title and more.

“We stepped up when it was win or go home,” Powers said. “We’ve been poised and experienced.”

The Eagles have multiple players who step up depending on the night. Their leading scorer, junior guard Angelo Easter, averages 12 points.

In addition to Easter, Freedom-South has been powered by junior forward Lance Johnson, who was named first-team all-conference while averaging 11 points and 12 rebounds.

“Lance is our most decorated player … he’s our most important player, but [it can be anyone] night in and night out,” Powers said. “There’s a lot of chemistry.”

Sammi Silber