The outpouring came like a flood in Anthony Cowan Jr.’s direction, and for a second, the St. John’s senior appeared ready to embrace it. After all, this was the moment he had worked toward, fueled by a growing list of goals and perceived slights in the notes section of his phone.
But just as the sea of red-clad Cadet faithful was about to swallow Cowan in the on-court celebration following No. 2 St. John’s 71-57 win Monday against No. 3 DeMatha in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championship, the Maryland recruit spun away, ball in hand, and soaked it all in near the baseline corner of American University’s Bender Arena.
Finally, Cowan and the Cadets were alone at the top.
“I just had so many emotions and it was all coming so fast, so I just took a minute to myself,” Cowan said after scoring a game-high 21 points. “This is everything we’ve fought for and all we’ve wanted as a team despite all the doubters.”
From the outset, the top-seeded Cadets (28-3) appeared intent on leaving little question against the second-seeded Stags, racing out to an early lead.
Bolstered by a quick pace and steady ball rotation that catered to its lack of size, St. John’s found Kylia Sykes for six points on slashing buckets and outscored DeMatha 11-2 in the opening minutes.
“That’s how we wanted to play, fast and quick, because that creates space for drives and dump-offs in the lane,” said Sykes, who finished with 17 points.
To counter the tempo, the Stags (26-5) shifted to a 2-3 zone on defense, placing 6-foot-10 Josh Carlton in the middle to clog up the lane. Gradually, thanks to several trips to the foul line and consecutive buckets by Kellon Taylor, DeMatha took a brief lead midway through the first quarter.
Just before halftime, however, once the Stags went back to a man-to-man look, the Cadets began to gain steam again, with Cowan converting a circus layup to put the Cadets up 25-24 at halftime.
Following another Sykes layup early in the third quarter, St. John’s once again revved up its attack. Dejuan Clayton, who kept DeMatha’s defense honest with his shooting, swished one of his three three-pointers and Cowan soon followed with another, punctuating a 17-4 run that gave the Cadets their biggest lead at 11 points.
“When DeMatha slowed things down,” Sykes said, “that’s when they started to get back in the game, so we had to get back to our game and also focus on defense and stopping their shooters.”
By swarming DeMatha’s guards and cutting off their dribble-drives, the Cadets held the Stags to 2-for-13 shooting from behind the arc and limited standout guard Markelle Fultz to 12 points.
Fultz did pull the Stags to within six after hustling to grab his own free throw miss for a quick putback midway through the fourth period. But the Cadets again responded behind Cowan. The All-Met orchestrated the flow, finding Sykes for a close look and Reese Mona for a three that iced the Cadets’ first WCAC title since 2000.
“We came out and controlled the game, and that’s why we’re standing here as champs,” Cowan said.