Photos special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh
NEWARK — Two years in a row, the Smyrna High boys’ basketball team reached the state quarterfiinals.
Two years in a row, the Eagles lost.
That memory of that disappointment was very much in Caleb Matthews’ mind just before he took the floor at the Carpenter Center on Sunday evening.
“Before the introductions, I just went over to the bench and thought about that feeling,” said the Smyrna junior guard. “I didn’t want to ever experience it again.”
Matthews and the fifth-seeded Eagles then went out and finally broke through that quarterfinal wall, putting away No. 4 Woodbridge, 63-51, to earn the program’s first trip to the DIAA state semifinals.
Smyrna (21-2) will be back in the Carpenter Center on Thursday night when it faces ninth-seeded St. Georges (17-6) in the second state semifinal at 8 p.m.
In a rematch of last week’s Henlopen Conference championship, the Eagles downed the Blue Raiders (19-4) by almost the exact same score — it was 61-51 last time. Matthews led the way, netting 26 points and sinking all eight of his foul shots.
“It’s a huge accomplishment, that’s for sure,” Smyrna coach Andrew Mears said about reaching the Final Four. “It feels like it’s been such a tough time getting past this. Sometimes it’s a matter of, not just your team, but who you match up against. There’s a couple things that have to happen.
“But then, once you’re here, you’ve got to take care of business. Ultimately, I think that’s what these guys did. They wanted it.”
Henlopen South champion Woodbridge led by as many three points in the early going. But the Eagles never trailed after a three-pointer from Anthony Watson (11 points) put them ahead, 11-10, midway through the first quarter.
Smyrna kept the Blue Raiders at arm’s length after that, taking a 32-26 lead by halftime and holding a 46-35 advantage after three quarters.
After the Eagles went by as many as 15 points, Woodbridge still kept battling. The Raiders sank three straight three-pointers and then got a three-point play from Cornell Corbin to get back within 55-50 with 1:33 still on the clock.
Smyrna, though, iced the game from the foul line. The Eagles scored their final 11 points on free throws, going 11-for-14 in the final two minutes. They were 17-of-22 for the game.
“I’m happy with our effort,” said Woodbridge coach Julius Cannon. “We gave it all we had. We didn’t give up and I’m proud of that.”
“I just think it came down to them playing together a little more than we did. Hats off to them. That’s a really great basketball team. They’re well put together and have every piece that they need.”
Mears, on the other hand, said Woodbridge deserves a lot of credit for the way it battled to the final buzzer.
“That team fights,” said Mears. “That’s just a team that’s going to play with you all the way to the end.”
Matthews’ perfect free-throw shooting is nothing new, of course. He was 18-of-18 in the last meeting with Woodbridge.
“Repetition,” Matthews said about the secret of his foul shooting.
Matthews also went 8-for-13 from the floor, with a pair of three-pointers, six assists and three blocked shots.
“You just have to play the same, don’t get nervous,” he said about being in a big game. “Just go out, play the game and have fun. It’s a lot of fun being out there in front of all those people. It’s a nice gym.”
“Caleb wants the ball in his hands and he wants to be at the line,” said Mears.
Sophomore Jaymeir Garnett added 12 points and seven rebounds for Smyrna while big man Zubi Nwankwo collected eight points, seven rebounds and five blocks.
Hassan Corbin netted a team-high 18 points for Woodbridge. Te’Vion Waters scored 10 points with Cornell Corbin adding six points, nine rebounds, six assists and three steals.
Now with a chance to go the program’s first state championship game, the challenge will get even bigger for Smyrna. But the Eagles say they’re not satisfied with just getting this far.
“We’re still two games away from what we want,” said Garnett. “We’ve got to work for it. We’ve got three days of practice.”
“Winning it is our goal,” said Matthews. “It’s been our goal since day one. Hopefully, if we keep working hard, we can achieve that goal.”
Reach sports editor Andy Walter at email@example.com