“We expect to be the best team everywhere we go,” senior guard Jamal Barnes said. “Coming into this season we expected to repeat because we don’t doubt ourselves for one second. We’re always looking to get better, and it translates to wins.”
Friday was the eighth time in the past two seasons the rival schools, located just a mile apart, have played. As the Saints ascended into the upper echelon of the area basketball landscape, they could chart their progress with momentous wins over the No. 18 Maroon (17-6, 9-4 IAC). Not only did they beat Episcopal in last year’s IAC championship, they also upended the Maroon in the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association final.
St. Stephen’s (26-3, 13-0 IAC) has dropped just one conference game over the past two seasons. This year, the Saints won 10 of their 13 IAC games by double digits.
“It’s tough to get young men motivated each and every night, especially when you won it last year,” Coach Mike Jones said. “But these guys are amazing. They stepped up and did it over and over.”
After the success of last season, Jones and his team came into this campaign knowing that their window remained wide open. They had experience and could start five seniors. On Friday, the Saints led the entire game after senior guard Jared Cross opened the scoring with a corner three-pointer.
In a way, the Saints are the perfect team to hold on to a lead. They pride themselves on a stingy and relentless defensive system. Their constant pressure proved most valuable in the third quarter, when Episcopal cut its deficit to three. St. Stephen’s produced back-to-back steals that led to easy transition baskets and regained control of the game.
“To play that kind of defense you have to be willing to work hard each day,” Jones said. “And these guys understand that.”