After a year of upheaval and drama off the court - and inconsistency on it - the DeMatha Catholic Stags ended the season in a familiar position: Alhambra Catholic Invitational Champions.
DeMatha’s three Division I-bound seniors - Tyrell Ward (Xavier), Rodney Rice (Virginia Tech) and Jerrell Roberson (James Madison) led the way as the Stags downed Washington Catholic Athletic Conference rival Paul VI 67-59 to win their third consecutive ACIT title.
Ward finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds, Rice 19 points and Roberson 12.
DeMatha’s roller coaster ride started when longtime coach Mike Jones left to take the associate head coach job at Virginia Tech last May, leaving one of the nation’s most prestigious high school jobs open for the first time in nearly 70 years. (Legendary coach Morgan Wootten led the Stags for 46 years and was followed by Jones, who held the job for 19.)
School administrators quickly tapped former DeMatha standout and longtime college coach Pete Strickland as interim coach with the intention to conduct a full search later, but the decision generated controversy as parents and alumni voiced displeasure with being left out of the decision process.
The Stags lost several key contributors to transfer prior to - and during - the regular season, and dealt with internal tensions and uneven performances throughout.
By the end, though, the Stags were playing up to their considerable potential.
“I mean, it's just adversity - we faced it, and just stayed strong,” an emotional Rice said after Saturday’s win. “It also made us stronger - not only on the court, but off the court, too. We kept our heads through the whole season, and it was a happy outcome.”
Rice said he felt the Stags began to hit their stride towards the latter half of the season.
“We went on like an 8-game winning streak, and then we lost to PVI; we had the game won but they just came storming back and they won the game in overtime [77-74 on February 1],” Rice said. “But that point right there, that’s when we were going upward. Then we lost in the WCAC playoffs, of course, to McNamara. I wish we could have that back but it is what it is. And then this, with these three games left, the whole team just left it all out on the court.”
Saturday’s game - as expected - was intense throughout. Paul VI led 14-9 after one quarter, and the teams were tied at 30-30 after a half.
DeMatha led 45-43 after one quarter but slowly built a cushion in the fourth, going up by 10 points with 2:38 remaining.
“I thought we stopped giving them two and three shots,” Strickland said of the difference in the second half. “We contested them well on one shot all night, but we stopped giving them those second and third shots. Tyrell, I think, led us in rebounding and he was the difference on the boards, and I don’t think he’s led us in rebounding all year. He just stepped up when we needed him. So it was just about not giving them second shots, because we really did guard them well on their first shot.”
As they've done so many times this season, PVI fought back, but couldn’t close the gap.
2023 guard DeShawn Harris-Smith had 19 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Panther, who got 13 apiece from 2024 guard Ben Hammond and Michigan-bound 2022 guard Dug McDaniel.
Nobody knows what the future holds for Strickland as the Stags’ permanent coach, but he's said he’d like to stay in the position. After a postgame water bottle shower in the locker room, Strickland handed out victory cigars - the bubble gum kind - and addressed his team for one last time this season.
“I love you,” he told them. “I will always love you, and I appreciate everything. You came together, you stuck together, and you finished together. Jaden [Winston] was saying it on the bench the whole last six minutes: ‘Finish together.’ It’s been an honor to coach you, it's been an honor to be back at DeMatha. It's been an honor to be part of your lives. And seniors, you’re a part of the DeMatha lore forever.”
Bishop Walsh (Md.) 2023 guard Mikey Allen. [MARCUS HELTON]
For the second day in a row, Bishop Walsh 2023 guard Mikey Allen ended up with the ball in his hands in a critical situation with nearly no time left on the clock.
And for the second day in a row, he made it work.
Allen drained a deep 3-pointer at the buzzer as Bishop Walsh capped a rally and shocked Mount St. Joseph 71-70 in front of a raucous local crowd. The shot came from the same wing - in front of the Spartans bench - that he hit a buzzer-beater to down Bishop McNamara on Friday, but a lot further back.
“It was definitely deeper, but I knew I was going to make it, too,” Allen said.
Saturday’s victory gave Bishop Walsh multiple wins in the Alhambra Catholic Invitational Tournament for the first time ever. Allen - A Cumberland native - had a big hand in that.
Allen’s latest big shot came right after MSJ looked to have a winner of its own, as 2022 forward Jonas Sujeta hit a corner 3 to put the Gaels ahead 73-71 with 4.2 seconds to go.
After Spartans timeout, 2023 guard DJ Dormu inbounded to 2023 guard Mike Williams, who found Allen on the wing. Allen launched a high shot that fell through the net as the buzzer sounded and his teammates rushed him yet again.
“Basically, we talked about me coming to the ball [on the inbounds] and making a play - either Mikey or TJ [Robinson],” Williams said. “Mikey just hit one and 3 guys came to me, so somebody was open. So I kicked the ball up and he made the play. I knew it was good; he just hit one the day before. I knew it was good - I didn’t even think about it.”
Williams wasn’t the only Spartan who felt victory was assured when Allen got the ball.
“We were in the huddle and I could just feel it,” Robinson said. “if he got it, I knew it was good, and he knocked it down. My man Mikey, man, it's crazy.”
It wasn’t an easy road to the final shot. The Spartans found themselves in a quick hole against a shorthanded MSJ squad, and trailed by as many as 17 points in the second quarter.
The Gaels only had 3 available players on the bench and were without starting guards Bryson Tucker and Ace Valentine, but set the tone early. They led 25-13 after one quarter and a 39-27 at halftime.
“We came out flat in the first half,” Robinson said. “I’m not going to disrespect them, but we were taking them lightly seeing that they were missing two key players, so they jumped out on us - we didn’t expect that. Then in the second half, we said we were going to win this game for our senior, Travis Roberts, and we had to lock in defensively and offensively.”
MSJ led 58-49 after three quarters, but Bishop Walsh made its move in the fourth, with Williams making two free throws to give the Spartans the lead with 13.9 seconds to play. MSJ called a timeout to set up Sujeta’s bucket.
Bishop Walsh followed with a timeout of its own to draw up the winning play.
“Credit to Mike Williams for having the heads up to find the open man.” BW coach Dan Prete said. “He could have rushed and tried to make a play himself, but he had the head to understand that there were two guys on him, and somebody was going to be open.”
Robinson finished with a team-high 20 points, while Roberts had 17, Allen 15 and Williams 11.
2023 guard Austin Abrams had 26 points to lead MSJ, while 2023 forward Amani Hansberry had 16 and 2024 forward Tyonne Farrell 12.
Bishop Walsh(Md.) 2022 wing guard Travis Roberts [MARCUS HELTON]
Bishop Walsh senior Travis Roberts is a 6-foot-5 guard who does most of his work on the perimeter, showcasing good passing instincts and a lethal shooting stroke.
One of the Jacksonville State commit’s most impressive attributes, though, is his willingness to do whatever is needed to win.
In the Spartans’ two Alhambra Catholic Invitational Tournament victories against Bishop McNamara and Mount St. Joseph, Roberts was pressed into service defensively at times against McNamara’s 6-foot-10 Miami-bound big man Favour Aire, as well as MSJ 6-8, 235-pound forward Amani Hansberry.
“Coach [Dan Prete] wanted us to use that strategy and use me as a big,’ Roberts said. “ I think I did pretty good on Favour yesterday and [Amani] today, you know? Fronting those guys and having our guards in the back line, it was a pretty tough job, but I think I handled it pretty well, though.”
“I can pretty much match up with, like, one through five. Put me with whoever, I’ve got it.”
Prete agreed, calling his lone senior “the difference” in last week’s two wins.
“He’s the kid that will sacrifice his offense to try to help us win,” Prete said. “Guarding those two monsters two nights in a row, his legs on his jump shot might have been a little bit tired. But he was willing to give that up because we needed him there. So to me, that’s the Most Valuable Player right there. Great shots by guys, but that was what was the most valuable player, because he sacrificed for the team, and learned that from guys in the past like [current Rutgers guard] Jalen Miller. He learned those things from him and he took them now, and hopefully these guys are going to learn from him. But he’s the heart and soul of who we are, and he’s going to have an incredible college career.”
St. Frances (MD) 2025 Guard Tyler Jackson. [MARCUS HELTON]
St. Frances Academy has a long and proud tradition of producing top-flight guards, and they may have found the latest to carry the torch in freshman Tyler Jackson.
Jackson closed out his first varsity season with a strong performance at the ACIT, closing with 11 points in a 64-61 win over Long Island Lutheran in the Panthers’ final game on Saturday. He hit a corner 3 to give SFA a 61-58 lead with 34 seconds remaining.
The 6-foot Jackson picked up a D-I scholarship offer from North Carolina A&T after scoring 10 points in a 66-64 opening victory over Bishop McNamara on Thursday.
Jackson admitted his freshman campaign didn’t get off to a great start.
“I struggled,” he said. “Some people didn’t even know, I really struggled but I grinded my way up. During the second half of the season I just started going hard and getting into games. [The difference was] The game picking up, you had to play more defense; sitting on the bench watching the upperclassmen play over top of you. That was really it.”
St. Frances coach Nick Myles said he’s gotten exactly what he expected from Jackson, adding his inclusion on the varsity roster is part of a greater philosophy.
“We always try to find that next great one,” Myles said. “A great college coach once told me, ‘You’re only as good as your freshman class.’ So I put an emphasis on bringing one freshman every year that we can groom through the program for four years. So Jahn [Lamothe] is the guy this year that’s been with us all the way through, and [2024 guard] Daquan [Davis] - who’s injured - then Tyler. So, just trying to have that one piece to keep the tradition live and to understand what it's like to be a 4-year varsity player.”
Myles said that after a steep adjustment from 8th grade to the varsity level - “19U,” he called it - Jackson has gotten more comfortable on both ends of the floor,
“He’s had some great moments and the future’s really, really bright,” Myles said. “I was telling some other local coaches. ‘That kid’s going to score 1300 to 1500 points by the time he graduates,’ - he’s just that kind of offensive talent. But the biggest thing that I’m proud of him about is how far he came defensively. That was a knock on him coming in: ‘He can really, really score, but he can’t defend,’ and anybody that’s ever watched us, I’m going to let you score, but you can’t play for me and not defend. So he’s taken strides every day defensively, which is impressive for a young kid.”
Bishop McNamara 2022 center Favour Aire [MARCUS HELTON]
After three consecutive losses - all three in the final second - the Bishop McNamara Mustangs really wanted a win to close the season out on a high note.
Their senior leader delivered it with a truly dominating performance.
Miam-bound 6-foot-10 senior center Favour Aire posted 36 points and 16 rebounds to lead the Mustangs to a 77-65 win over WCAC foe Gonzaga on Saturday.
“I”m always a guy that believes in my team,” Aire said afterwards when reflecting on his final season. “ I’d put us against Montverde, I’d put us against Oak Hill - whatever team it is, I trust my team against them.”
The win ended a streak of terrible end of game luck for the Mustangs. McNamara lost the WCAC Championship on a lay-up in the final seconds, then lost their Alhambra opener against St. Frances on Thursday in similar fashion. On Friday, they looked to have victory in their grasp before Bishop Walsh’s Mikey Allen dropped in a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“I have a very resilient group, and that’s one thing I’m really proud of,” McNamara coach Marty Keithline said. “Obviously we lost three heartbreakers in a row - the WCAC Championship Game and the two here. We had a little meeting [Friday] night just talking about being resilient, and I’m very proud of them for that.”
On Saturday, the Mustangs snapped the skid behind Aire, who absolutely took over while closed making 10 of his final 12 shots from the field.
It was the perfect ending for Aire - a once super raw and skinny freshman from Nigeria who transformed himself into one of the best big men in program history. He scored his 1,000th career point in Thursday’s game - he was recognized between the first and second quarters - and also surpassed Talib Zanna as the school’s all-time leading rebounder earlier this season.
With high school ball now in the rearview mirror, Aire said he is beginning to prepare his body for the rigors of major DI basketball.
“What I’m focusing on the most is to get my strength level up,” he said, “because you know college is way more physical than high school, so I’ve got to be able to handle that. So get in the weight room and work on my shot and my IQ in the post. I’ve talked to the coaching staff and they’ve given me, like, a hint of how they’re going to use me, so I’m just trying to work on all those things so I’m ready when I get there.”