After an uneven start, St. John’s appears to be playing its best basketball as the postseason draws near. Sophomore guard Darian Anderson scored a game-high 22 points and the Cadets clamped down on the region’s hottest player as they knocked off then-No. 1 and previously undefeated Gonzaga, 56-54, on Sunday.
Sophomore guard Tre Campbell scored eight of his 10 points in the fourth quarter as the Cadets (13-9, 7-4 Washington Catholic Athletic Conference) won their fourth consecutive game, their longest winning streak this season.
“We’re playing better,” St. John’s Coach Paul DeStefano said. “We lost some games early that were very close game. But we’re young. It’s a maturing process. We’re growing in the right direction. We have to try to continue it into February.”
DeStefano said the Cadets mixed zone and man-to-man defenses to try to slow down Gonzaga junior forward Kris Jenkins, who had averaged 27.7 points in his previous seven games. He finished with 12 Sunday, matching his second-lowest total this season.
“He had some open looks that didn’t go in,” DeStefano said. “When I saw him at AU against DeMatha [when Jenkins scored 27 points] I thought he was phenomenal. He had Superman’s ‘S’ on his chest. We made him the focus of our defense. Our defensive effort was consistent throughout the game. That really helped us.”
Offensively, Anderson was efficient, making 8 of 12 shots, including 4 of 5 from three-point range. Campbell made four late free throws and classmate James Mitchell made a pair of free throws with six seconds left to seal the victory. Forwards Abdiel Badillo-Martinez and Lennard Freeman had eight points and six rebounds each.
Patrick Holloway’s buzzer-beating three-pointer not only lifted Paul VI Catholic to a thrilling 64-62 victory over DeMatha on Friday night, it also vaulted the Panthers atop The Post’s rankings for the first time ever.
In a span of four days, the top three teams in last week’s rankings lost, opening the door for Paul VI as it prepares to host last week’s top-ranked team, Gonzaga, on Tuesday night.
“I think it is the biggest victory” in school history, Coach Glenn Farello said. “I came in five years ago with the goal to get to a Gonzaga or DeMatha level. Just like when I got to [Eleanor] Roosevelt and my goal was to get to the level Oxon Hill was already at. Those two have proven themselves year in and year our, decade in and decade out. And to get there, you need to have these kind of signature victories.
“Keeping in mind it’s only January. But for a program like ours, it is very important, not having had that kind of success.”
Replacing five starters had W.T. Woodson’s coaching staff nervous.
“We knew the kids could play, knew their was talent,” Cavaliers Coach Doug Craig said. “We just knew there was not a lot of experience around.”
While the coaching staff sweated about the kinks they might have to work through early in the season, the players felt less uneasy. The junior varsity had gone 15-1 the year before and those players felt confident the success would translate. The chemistry of the team felt exceptional both on and off the court.
“I knew we had a lot of young talent coming up,” said Brandon Stepka, the team’s sixth man last year and lone player returning with experience on varsity. “A.J. Carr, my brother [Thomas Stepka], Eric Bowles coming up as a freshman. I was surprised we came out real strong winning our first [three], but I wasn’t too surprised we have been able to keep it going.”
Woodson (15-3, 9-1 Virginia AAA Patriot) hasn’t displayed much in the way of varsity jitters. The Cavaliers dropped just one of their first nine games – a nine-point loss to No. 10 Episcopal – and after losing two in a row have now won seven straight.
They have done so despite lacking a star player, something the Fairfax school has had in the past, and with a balanced roster in which 10 players have reached double digits in at least one game this season.
Thomas Stepka leads the team averaging 13.3 points, while Brandon Stepka (8.1 ppg), Carr (7.9 ppg) and Bowles (6.9 ppg) round out the top scorers.
“We have a very balanced team it’s hard for teams to come out and shut down one person,” Brandon Stepka said. “We have guys off the bench who come out and hit a couple shots, Tommy or AJ can get into inside. We have a lot of options we use to beat teams.”
Woodson avenged its lone loss in Northern Region play – to Lake Braddock on Jan. 3 – with a 73-50 win over the Bruins on Friday. They close the regular season with games on the road at West Potomac (12-5) and Lee (0-16) and at home against West Springfield (8-10) and South County (12-7).
“As long as we just keep working hard in practice we can hopefully win out our last four district games,” Brandon Stepka said. “And we have a pretty good shot at winning the district title and hopefully we can work hard and win a region title, too.”
On Saturday, Briar Woods finished off an exhausting stretch of three games in four nights that saw the Falcons take down two-time defending state champions Potomac Falls and high-scoring Park View and avenge their lone district loss of the season by beating Woodgrove.
The congested schedule is by design. With five players — including two starters — still with the Falcons’ state championship football team through mid-December, Briar Woods coach Mike Benson put in requests with several district coaches to postpone their early games to the back end of their schedule. The coaches were accommodating, and the Falcons have taken full advantage.
They entered the week tied with Loudoun Valley (17-2, 12-1) atop the Dulles District in the loss column. Both teams have only one defeat, but the Falcons (14-2, 10-1) have five game remaining to the Vikings’ three. The two teams meet Tuesday night at Briar Woods.
“Intensity has been key with so many games so close together,” said senior Myles Tate, who broke the school’s single-game scoring record with 42 points and 10 assists in the 82-76 win at Park View on Saturday. “We’re trying to stay rested, and it’s a challenge when you’re playing three games a week.”
Tate and his teammates are no strangers to adversity. Looking to build the program from the ground up three years ago, Benson started a freshman backcourt of Tate and Yves Kouame. The Falcons struggled to a nine-win season that year and the next (in a snow-shortened season), but progress has been steady, and Benson’s four-year plan is coming to fruition.
“It was definitely a challenge for them, but they may not have had the opportunity anywhere else,” Benson said. “Now our guys have a lot of game experience. That was the plan and every single year they’ve gotten better and better.”
Tate’s development from a flashy scorer to a complete point guard has been crucial. The school’s first 1,000-point scorer was benched for all of Briar Woods’s loss to Woodgrove two weeks ago as a ‘coach’s decision’ according to Benson. But in the games since, the speedy 5 foot 7 sparkplug has a renewed focus and drive that has the entire team playing its best basketball of the season.
“If I was going to do that, that was the right time to do it,” Benson said of the decision to sit his top scorer. “These last two weeks, Myles has grown much more as a leader, everyone’s attitude is a little different in practice and it’s showing in the games.”
In a league loaded with prolific scorers, two of the top defensive teams have separated themselves from the pack. Coveted junior linebacker recruit Matt Rolin’s physical play on the interior, coupled with the gritty perimeter defense of Kouame and senior Correy Facciane helped the Falcons contain several of the district’s top scorers. And defense will be key as they try to capture their first district championship.
“We want to be like football and cheerleading,” Tate said, referring the school’s top two athletic teams, who have combined for five state championships in the last three years. “We’ve been working for four years to get to this point. This is our senior year - we feel like it’s our turn now, and we want to win as many games as we can.”