NEWARK — Since the season started, Smyrna High has made this its goal.
And now the Eagles are just one victory away from bringing home the school’s first DIAA state championship in boys’ basketball.
Fifth-seeded Smyrna emphatically stamped its first ticket to the state finals with a 51-32 win over No. 9 St. Georges before a Carpenter Center crowd of 3,499 in Thursday night’s state semifinals.
Only No. 19 Caravel stands in the Eagles’ path to winning their first state crown — not to mention becoming the first Henlopen Conference school to win the boys’ state championship since 1997.
Smyrna (22-2) will face the Buccaneers (18-6) for the state title on Saturday at 1 p.m. in the Carpenter Center.
Against a St. Georges squad (19-5) that had been to the state finals twice in the last three seasons, the Eagles outscored the Hawks, 27-14, in the second half to win going away.
“Everybody’s playing well and we’re playing as a team,” junior guard Caleb Matthews said after collecting 12 points and six assists. “It’s going to be hard to stop. (But) it doesn’t really mean anything until we get a win.
“There’s a lot of hard work we put in this season and to see it finally paying off. … We’ve got one more game — 32 minutes — to go out there, play hard and show everybody who we are.”
“I like the intensity we gave throughout the whole game,” said sophomore forward Jaymeir Garnett, who had 16 points and 12 rebounds. “It feels great (to be in the state finals). We came here last year and took a tough loss (in the quarterfinals). We don’t want that.
“We knew what we had to do when we got here. We had to get the job done.”
As much as anything, it was Smyrna’s defense that sent the Eagles to the title game.
While St. Georges’ Nah’Shon Hyland scored 16 points, he did it on just 7-of-23 shooting — including 2-of-12 shooting from three-point range. And his talented teammate, Kyson Rawls, was limited to only four points on 1-of-12 shooting from the floor.
Senior Iyair Hinson-Purnell had the job of defending Rawls much of the night. Zion Cole and Anthony Watson also did their part in defending the Hawks’ two guards.
“We were going to hang our hat on our defense,” said Smyrna coach Andrew Mears. “That’s where it starts. With Iyair, with Zion, with Anthony, I just thought, for four quarters, they just put so much pressure on their guards. They just stuck with the game plan.”
“He did a great job not fouling him, staying in front, forcing him to take long jumpers,” Matthews said about Hinson-Purnell’s effort. “And when he did (get past him), he had to run into a seven-footer.”
That seven-footer, of course, is Smyrna’s Zubi Nwankwo, who had 11 points, 15 rebounds and seven blocked shots. With Garnett adding three blocks, the Eagles finished with 12 blocked shots as a team.
The Hawks just 26.4 percent for the contest (14-of-53) while Smyrna also finished with a 42-30 edge in rebounds.
Offensively, the Eagles were good enough. They shot 20-of-49 from the floor and turned the ball over only 10 times.
Smyrna owns a 17-game winning streak in part because it’s pretty good at hitting some clutch shots, too.
The Eagles got a three-pointer from Cole to give them a 24-18 halftime advantage, a long three from Matthews to give them a 29-18 lead early in the third quarter and finally a three from Watson to give them some beathing room at 39-30 with four minutes on the clock.
After St. Georges closed within six, Smyrna tallied 15 of the night’s final 17 points.
The Eagles know they’re just 32 minutes away from capturing the school’s first basketball state crown.
Whether undersized Caravel is the 19th seed or not, the last thing Mears expects is the Eagles to overlook their opponent with a state title on the line.
“The nice thing is, it’s a quick turnaround,” said Mears. “So we don’t have to wait too long. But, at the same time, we’re just going to go about our business — how we’ve done it all year.
“We haven’t overlooked anybody this year. The only team we’ve been concerned with every single night is ourselves. So it starts with us.”
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