The first month of O’Connell’s basketball schedule featured its share of challenges, including matchups against five nationally ranked opponents, and the final stretch of the season would not be any easier as the Knights moved into the heart of their Washington Catholic Athletic Conference schedule.
But there’s one foe that sticks out to O’Connell’s players more than any, an opponent featuring players twice their age and a competitive advantage that they had never encountered — their coaches.
“That was a hard practice. Very, very physical,” Knights senior Ako Adams recalled of the session following the team’s Jan. 14 loss to Paul VI. “It was constant contact from the assistant coaches, and (head) Coach (Joe) Wootten was the ref, so you know how that goes.”
What has transpired since that grueling scrimmage has positioned the Knights (18-9) to make those bumps and bruises worthwhile. By adopting a more physical brand of play, O’Connell has won eight of its last 10 games with the latest victory coming Friday against No. 2 St. John’s.
Led by the inside play of junior transfer Nate Watson (18 points, 15 rebounds) and the perimeter prowess of three other double-digit scorers, the Knights asserted themselves as a viable contender in the deep conference.
“We tried to go inside a lot and get their players in foul trouble, and that helped open the floor and open up a lead,” said Watson, who leads the team with 13.6 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. “Protecting the glass and shot selection are the keys for us.”
Finding those strengths as a team was a process for a team with just two seniors and a handful of new faces in its rotation. But with the 6-foot-8 Watson and 6-foot-7 D’Marco Baucum in the paint and Adams manning the perimeter alongside defensive specialist Randall Gaskins Jr. and emerging scorer Matt Lewis, the pieces were in place for the Knights to string together their recent success.
“It was just all about our confidence as a whole,” said Adams, who is second on the team scoring at 10.8 points per game. “Defensively we grew up and we had to get the young guys getting into it and believing they can play with anybody in the league.”
That attitude will be put to the test this week as the WCAC tournament begins. Even with the league’s talent and depth at its highest in recent memory, the Knights are poised to not let their relative youth get in the way of competing for their first conference title since 2012.
“We believe we’re right there with everybody else,” Watson said. “It’s just a matter of showing it and doing what we do best.”
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