There was no separation to be found. Not in the bleachers, with fans sitting shoulder-to-shoulder and fighting for every inch of leg room. Not on the baseline, as a row of cameras big and bigger stayed fixed on the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it action. And certainly not on the court, where the boys’ basketball teams from DeMatha and Gonzaga wrestled for space and points and legacies they practiced their entire lives to achieve.

But one thing was clear, as the players flew from one end of the court to the other, leaped at the rim and rose for jumpers as their parents and pals begged for the ball to roll in: The high school basketball played at American University on Monday night was different. The Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championship was the place to be.

“It’s the best in the country,” DeMatha sophomore Earl Timberlake said of WCAC basketball, conviction in his voice and a huge smile on his face, after he scored a team-high 14 points in a 54-53 win over Gonzaga for the title. 

His coach, Mike Jones, eyes red from tears and still catching his breath minutes after the game, needed four words to sum it up for himself, his team, his school and everyone who watched the game unfold: “I’ll never forget this.”

It has been a decidedly down year for college basketball in the Washington region — not to mention the bigger problems facing the sport exposed through an ongoing FBI probe. There is a very good chance no men’s basketball team from the immediate D.C. area makes this year’s NCAA tournament field, as Maryland, Georgetown, George Washington and American would need to win their conference tournaments to do so.

None of that seems likely. So what’s left is the best amateur hoops the city has to offer, this four-day private school tournament that brimmed with Division I talent and offered looks into the sport’s near and distant future.

If there was to be any madness in Washington this winter or spring, one could find it here, inside American’s Bender Arena, a 5,300-seat facility stuffed Monday with college basketball coaches and college basketball hopefuls and, ultimately, basketball fans, who paid for a $10 ticket that stretched the length of the 94-foot court and then some. 

“In Washington, it’s Redskins and then high school basketball in order of importance,” Doug Martin, who coaches for the D.C.-based AAU program Team Takeover, said before before the boys’ final. “You had to show up two hours early just to get a good seat.”

If the District of Columbia-Maryland-Virginia (or DMV) area is a premier high school basketball hotbed — and it is — then the WCAC is a full-on talent-producing machine. 

Markelle Fultz, the first overall pick by the Philadelphia 76ers in last summer’s NBA draft, was playing for DeMatha just two winters ago. NBA all-star Victor Oladipo, now a point guard for the Indiana Pacers, played for the Stags. Chris Lykes, who led Gonzaga to last year’s WCAC title, is a key freshman contributor to Miami’s push toward the NCAA tournament. Remember Kris Jenkins, that guy who hit that magical, buzzer-beating three to give Villanova the 2016 national championship? He played for Gonzaga, too. 

That’s just a tiny sliver of the history, for those two teams and all the others that were sucked in and spit out by the unyielding unpredictability of the WCAC playoffs over the weekend. And it’s not just on the boys’ side: The girls’ WCAC final at American on Monday, a 54-49 win for St. John’s over Paul VI, was a matchup of two of the top teams in the country, with players committed to Tennessee, Maryland and Northwestern and a handful of top prospects still in the recruiting process. 

After the girls’ game ended, and the crowd swelled to capacity, as many as 13 future Division I players took the court for the boys’ championship game. The area’s other top prospects and coaches and trainers, after exchanging bro hug after customary bro hug, settled into their seats. College coaches from Maryland, Villanova, North Carolina State and Penn State, among many others, dotted the arena.

DeMatha students nearly filled a whole section. Gonzaga students nearly filled two. The public address announcer reminded the crowd there was to be “no bouncing in the bleachers.” The students reminded the public address announcer they had no interest in listening. 

Then came the show. Then came 7-foot sophomore center Hunter Dickinson, a high-major recruit and DeMatha’s rock inside, stealing a pass and driving the whole floor for a lefty lay-in. Then came Penn State signee Myles Dread, a senior for Gonzaga, canning jumpers as if he were tossing stones into a lake. Then came a Dickinson steal in the final seconds of the fourth quarter. His teammates rushed the court in celebration. The court was cleared and Gonzaga, after a missed free throw, had 1.5 seconds to score as the entire crowd stood in anticipation. Moments later, DeMatha, champion at last, could jump onto the court and stay there. 

It all made for a game that, when the players are spread across the country in the years to come, will be remembered as that time they were all teenagers in the same gym, untouched by whatever is coming next, blending into basketball in its purest form. 

“I always laugh when people say it’s arguably the best league in the country,” said Glenn Farello, whose Paul VI team went 18-0 in WCAC regular season play before falling to Gonzaga in Sunday’s semifinals. “It is the best league in the country.”

And, for one Monday night in February at the very least, the best basketball in the city, too.