Bishop Walsh 2021 guard Ismail Habib drives against Wasatch Academy. [MATT MCINTOSH, DMVELITE]
SPRINGFIELD, VA - After an offseason of waiting and wondering when they'd get to play real games, the Bishop Walsh (Md.) Spartans finally got to open their 2020-21 campaign, and there certainly wasn’t any easing into it.
The Spartans are part of the loaded field for the inaugural The St. James National Interscholastic Basketball Conference (NIBC) Invitational, which is taking place January 8-18 at the sprawling The St. James complex.
The event includes a host of teams ranked nationally by MaxPreps: #1 Montverde Academy (FL), #2 IMG Academy (FL), #3 Sunrise Christian (KS), #4 Paul VI (Va.), #5 DeMatha (Md.), #9 Legacy Early (SC), #10 La Lumiere (IN), #11 Wasatch Academy (UT), #13 Oak Hill (Va.), #15 AZ Compass Prep, #17 St. Frances (Md.) and #22 John Marshall (Va.).
“We felt lucky we were getting to do anything, but at the same time, it’s been hard,” Bishop Walsh coach Dan Prete said of preparing for this season. “You’re practicing, and then you lose the month of December where there’s no games, so there’s no evaluation of your team, really. But like I said, you get to play. So to be honest with you, in a year like this, there’s no excuses. We’re here and some teams aren’t, so we feel lucky that we get a chance as an unranked Western Maryland team to get to play against all the top-ranked teams in the country.”
Bishop Walsh jumped right into the fire, opening against top-ranked Montverde on Friday. The Spartans fought hard and trailed by just 10 points at the half (32-22) before Montverde dominated the second half en route to a 77-39 victory.
Things were much closer in a 45-37 loss to La Lumiere on Saturday. Both teams started slow offensively, with La Lumiere taking a 10-7 lead after one quarter and a 19-18 advantage at the half.
The Lakers opened things up a bit in the third quarter, outscoring the Spartans 12-5 in the frame to take a 31-23 lead.
Bishop Walsh made a move in the fourth quarter. Rutgers-bound 2021 guard Jalen Miller hit back-to-back buckets to close the gap to 37-35 with 1:36 remaining. He later scored on a drive to the basket to trim the Lakers’ lead to 40-37 with 29.3 seconds to play, but the Spartans wouldn’t get any closer as La Laumiere closed things out at the free throw line.
7-foot 2022 center Vincent Iwuchukwu had 19 points and 6 rebounds to lead La Lumiere, while Chisolm Okpara had 12 points.
“You’re playing - whatever poll you want to believe, the 10th-ranked team, and they’re so big,” Prete said. “I mean, they clog everything up. It’s our second game, but I don’t give [our players] that excuse right now. It’s time to play - this is the big boy league - and sometimes you’ve got to suck it up. I told them the last couple of weeks there’s kids that aren’t even getting to practice for their high schools, and they’re getting to play on the national stage. So take the opportunity and appreciate it, rather than expect it. The kids need to grow up a little bit, and that’s part of maturing. They’ll get there.”
2023 forward Malik Bowman had 11 points to lead the Spartans, while Miller finished with 10.
“Not making any excuses - I don’t think that’s ever the case for me, personally, or for our team with our objectives this year,” Miller said. “But we’re still trying to get everything together. These were our first two games against a team other than scrimmaging amongst ourselves for maybe a month and a half. But I think that as we keep going through the season and hopefully we’ll get these changes through and we’ll play together as a unit and play smart. We know that we’re the underdogs in this tournament and in this league. We just came off of playing the No. 1 team in the country down 10 at the half to a blowout and then down 1 to the No. 10 team in the country and we lose in the second half.”
Bishop Walsh 2021 guard Ryan Prather said the Spartans have let their opponents dictate the tempo early on.
“I just feel like sometimes we need to run everything through and be patient and not let the defense rush us,” Prather said, “and run our offense instead of doing what the defense wants us to do.”
The Spartans fell to Wasatch Academy on Sunday 74-64. Miller led Bishop Walsh with 17 points while Austin Peay-bound 2021 guard Ismail Habib had 15 and highly-touted 2022 guard Travis Roberts finished with 14.
Bishop Walsh returns to action January 12 against Oak Hill, and have remaining games against Hamilton Heights (TN) on January 15 and Legacy Early on January 17.
“It feels great [to be playing games again],'' Miller said. “One thing I don’t question is how much everybody loves basketball on our team and how excited they are to get on the floor every night. The only thing I would say is that with these opportunities, you have to hold yourself to a standard. I hold myself to a high standard, and I know that if I continue to get better I'll really get prepared for the next level, but at the same time I want to win these games. I want to make a name for this school and for ourselves so that we can get our unsigned seniors somewhere and our juniors and our sophomores and so on.”