Entering Sunday’s game against nationally ranked St. Joseph (N.J.) at the Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass., DeMatha Coach Mike Jones and his players found themselves both chasing and eluding history.
Though his team was initially unaware, Jones sat just one win away from his 300th coaching victory. But it had been four years since the Stags won at the annual HoopHall event, and after they fell behind 19-9 in the opening minutes of Sunday’s contest, it appeared that narrative would continue.
Still, the Stags stuck with their game plan, swarming Kentucky recruit Karl Towns Jr. to force the ball out of his hands and building on the collectively sound play of its starters to steal the momentum. DeMatha went on a 25-5 run in the final minutes to turn a once-close contest into a 73-45 rout.
“When we went down 19-9, the first thing you think is, ‘Oh crap, here we go again,’” Jones said. “But we fought back to put ourselves in a good position at halftime and we played as close to a complete game as we have all year by playing unselfishly.”
Joe Hampton led the way with 23 points, not backing down on other end of the floor against the versatile Towns, who finished with 21 points but struggled to get going outside of the paint. Corey Henson added 18 points and the Stags got big contributions from D.J. Harvey and Thomas Bruce, who has worked his way back from injury to provide strong defense on DeMatha’s back line.
“We boxed out, rebounded and our defense was way better and more focused than we were in the loss to O’Connell [on Jan. 11],” Henson said. “We haven’t won at the Hoophall in a while, and it was an extreme boost of confidence for us.”
Following just their second losing season in school history, the Stags have burst out of the gate to start this year with wins in 15 of their first 16 games. Anchored by the inside-outside play of Hampton and Henson, the Stags have been ignited by a depth that has six players averaging at least six points per contest.
Camaraderie will be key as DeMatha enters the final stretch of the regular season, beginning with this week’s games against No. 3 St. John’s and WCAC rival Gonzaga on Thursday and Saturday, respectively.
As for Sunday, the focus was on celebrating Jones’s coaching achievement, adding yet another feat to the school’s storied basketball success.
“I’d be lying if I said this win didn’t mean something to me, just for the simple fact that when I started 12 years ago, there were some who didn’t think I’d be around for 300 games, let alone 300 wins,” Jones said. “It’s a credit to the DeMatha community and all the coaches and players I’ve worked with. I love my team and I told them I wouldn’t want to experience this achievement with anybody else.”
Paul VI Coach Glenn Farello jokingly referred to the last six days as the gauntlet, a stretch that included four games and three flights from Washington D.C. to Missouri to Massachusetts and back home.
True to its moniker, the Panthers encountered their share of adversity on the trip from a few players getting banged up to a narrow loss to a nationally ranked team to a facing a late deficit with tired legs in Monday’s game. Still, Paul VI emerged with three wins in four games, finishing third at the Bass Pro Tournament of Champions in Missouri and then rallying to defeat legendary coach Bob Hurley and St. Anthony on Monday at the Hoophall Classic in Massachusetts. The Panthers are the first team out of six to ever win at the Hoophall after playing in the Bass Pro tournament during the same weekend, according to Farello.
“I’m really proud of how we bounced back from our one loss and fought hard to win our last two games even though we were a little short-handed,” Farello said. “We knew it’d be a huge challenge and we showed a lot of grittiness all weekend long.”
After blowing out Willard (Mo.) on Thursday, the Panthers came up short against a Memphis Station (Tenn.) ranked in the top five nationally. What’s more, starting guard Evan Taylor sprained his ankle and was forced to miss the final two games of the trip.
But in a 75-46 rout of Christ the King (N.Y.) in Saturday’s third-place game, Kevin Dorsey and Tyler Scanlon led five different double-digit scorers with 19 points each while Joshua Reaves sealed his spot on the Bass Pro All-Tournament team with 13.
As the team prepared for their Sunday flight to Massachusetts, with a layover in Chicago, they openly discussed the need to buckle down and pull out their best effort for what was sure to be a tough turnaround for Monday’s game.
“You’re not always going to have your ‘A’ game or feel fresh, so you have find a way to be mentally tough,” Farello said. “You can’t ignore it; it’s a reality. And that’s why I was so proud of our effort and ability to be tough enough.”
Down nine in the fourth quarter and with Dorsey fouled out and Reaves and Marcus Derrickson shuffling in and out of the game to nurse various injuries, the Panthers looked to be in trouble against St. Anthony (N.J.). But Farello found a spark in his team’s depth, as freshman Aaron Thompson and sophomores Scanlon, Curtis Jones and Corey Manigault helped Paul VI claw back into the game. Jones knocked down two jumpers and Reaves, the game’s MVP with 14 points and nine boards, turned a steal into a breakaway dunk during a 13-2 run that put the Panthers up for good.
The 62-56 victory improved Paul VI to 5-2 against teams that were nationally ranked at one point this season. But the gauntlet isn’t quite over yet – weather permitting, the second-ranked Panthers (15-3) will host No. 3 St. John’s (13-1) on Tuesday to begin their final stretch of play before the WCAC tournament.