Justin Moore is DeMatha's leading scorer this season. (Courtesy photo/Adam Ayalew)

A sharp cut just below Justin Moore’s right eye caught the attention of his mother, Keli, as she sat on the top bleachers of a packed gym in late January, eyes on her son as he brought the ball up the court.

“Now, wait,” said Keli, watching Moore’s DeMatha squad play the Patrick School in the N.J./D.C. Collision tournament. “Who did that to Justin? What happened? Did anyone see the play?”

With Moore’s eye quickly starting to swell as he continued to knock down jump shots in the second quarter of DeMatha’s 79-69 victory, Keli reached for her phone. Her eldest son was injured, and she wanted answers. Justin’s uncle, Dwayne Moore, came over at halftime, breaking down the exact play and angle of the elbow hit, but he told Keli not to worry. 

“You know he’s not going to stop playing,” Dwayne told Keli. “He’s gone through worse.” 

For the junior 6-foot-4 guard and four-star recruit who scored 20 points in DeMatha’s win that late January night, a busted eye was a minor concern. For one of the key leaders on a No. 2 DeMatha team that is eyeing a Washington Catholic Athletic Conference title, it wasn’t anything an ice pack and some squinting couldn’t fix.

In January 2017, Moore, then a sophomore, went through the worst injury of his basketball career: a torn anterior cruciate ligament. In a game against Bishop McNamara, Moore collected a steal and barreled down the court on his way to the rim. He went up for a layup and was fouled hard, sending him crashing to the court. The gym went silent.

“You could tell it was bad,” Dwayne Moore said of Justin’s injury. “You were just wishing it wasn’t as bad as it looked.”

The next day Moore had an MRI exam, which revealed the torn ACL. 

“I just kind of fell back in my chair,” Greg Moore, Justin’s father, said of hearing the news. “It was a good thing he wasn’t around at the time, so I could get myself together.” 

While the injury was tough on Justin and his family, Moore knew he wanted to start his recovery right away. He had surgery Jan. 12, nine days after the injury, and went immediately into rehab work. He was jogging after three months.

After four months, he was able to cut and move laterally without contact. In a gym almost every day, he would work out with Paul VI guard Trevor Keels or go over to his uncle Dwayne’s house to lift weights. 

In June, he received a scholarship offer from Wake Forest. By July, Moore was doing drill work on the court and begging to get back in a game for Team Takeover, a D.C.-based, Nike-affiliated AAU program. By September, he was cleared for contact, donning a knee brace while participating in open gym, getting colleges to come out and watch.

Louisville came and offered, as did Maryland, Villanova and Penn State.

Now more than a year after the injury, Moore is feeling close to 100 percent. He said he still needs to work on his speed and agility, but he is back to lowering his head and driving to the rim — and the brace finally came off a few weeks ago.

“I just want to win a championship,” Moore said. “That’s all I want to do. It was a struggle to see my teammates out there playing and knowing I couldn’t play, but it motivated me each and every day.”

Since returning to game action, his list of college offers has been growing. On New Year’s Day, he picked one up from Virginia. 

“Just in that one calendar year, to have him go down and then by December he is playing . . . and getting an offer from Virginia,” Greg Moore said. “I mean, when you hear that news in January, you never would think that would happen in the same year.”

With a critical road win over No. 3 Gonzaga on Tuesday, DeMatha took over second place in the WCAC. The Stags face another tough matchup Friday at No. 1 Paul VI and next week will enter the conference tournament as one of its top contenders.

Moore scores 16.8 points a game to lead DeMatha, but his leadership ability might be even more important. Even when he missed a game because of the flu last month, he texted DeMatha Coach Mike Jones to send a message to his teammates. 

“The one thing I always knew about him was his work ethic,” Jones said. “He has a drive in him, and he is also very quiet. There isn’t a need to tell him what he is doing. He will just do it.”