7-footer Nwankwo, Eagles eye Raiders Friday night in Henlopen title game

SMYRNA — Caleb Matthews thought it wasn’t true when he first heard.

No way was a legitimate 7-footer enrolling at Smyrna High. That kind of height just doesn’t exist in Delaware high school basketball.

But sure enough, Zubi Nwankwo is here and the Eagles are in the Henlopen Conference boys’ championship game tonight.

“I didn’t believe it at first,” Matthews said. “I heard the rumors for weeks. Then I finally saw him in person and I was just amazed.”

Nwankwo has helped Smyrna capture its first Henlopen Conference Northern Division title since 2012. The Eagles (18-2) will aim for their first conference championship since 1985 tonight at 8 p.m. when they meet Henlopen South champion Woodnbridge (18-2) at Cape Henlopen High.

Caesar Rodney High (19-1) plays Laurel High (17-3) in the girls’ championship right before, at 6 p.m.

Nwankwo arrived at Smyrna for his junior year after transferring from Wesley Christian in Kentucky. He was born in Nigeria and did not start playing basketball until he arrived in the United States.

He has only three years of experience with basketball, but has a lot of people excited about his potential.

“To his credit he works hard and he’s fun to coach,” said Smyrna coach Andrew Mears. “He’s come a long way. He’s progressed in two months more than I’ve seen guys progress in seven months. He’s still pretty fresh to basketball. I think when it’s all said and done he’ll be one of the more heavily recruited guys around here as long as he continues with that same work ethic.”

Nwankwo does come from an athletic background. He played soccer growing up in Nigeria.

It wasn’t until he moved that he was encouraged to play basketball, an obvious natural fit considering his height.

“My first game was soccer but when I came here everyone was telling me I had to try basketball,” Nwankwo said. “I gave it a shot and it’s a lot of fun. I love the game.”

The Smyrna players wasted no time welcoming Nwankwo to his new school.

“We wanted to make him feel welcomed and help him along,” Matthews saod. “We all want to be his friend and be there with him. Basketball-wise, it’s not hard to accommodate a 7-footer. It makes everyone’s life easier on the court.”

Smyrna had high expectations for this season even before Nwankwo came on board.

The Eagles returned starters Matthews, a junior, and sophomore Jaymeir Garnett from a team which made the state quarterfinals a year ago combined with the addition of Nwankwo and role seniors like Dymer’e Richardson, Anthony Watson, Zion Cole and Iyair Hinson-Purnell.

But Mears was cautious with his optimism regarding this group. He knew it might take awhile for the players to learn how to play with one another.

Those growing pains occurred when Smyrna dropped a pair of games at the Slam Dunk to the Beach showcase event over the December holiday break.

“There’s talent so that was able to get us some wins early on,” Mears said. “But the adversity at Slam Dunk is what helped us grow into a team. Part of it is buy-in. I strongly believe we had three our four guys who are role players for us but could be starters on another team. They put their ego aside and bought into something bigger than themselves.”

“It showed there’s another level we just weren’t ready for,” Mears added. “That was probably the best thing that has happened to us all year. We didn’t get wins out of it but it’s really proven to helped us going down the stretch, especially finishing out the Northern Division which I believe year in and year out is one of the toughest divisions in the state.”

Matthews agreed that learning experience helped Smyrna in the long run. The Eagles have won 13 games since Slam Dunk, including being awarded a victory on Tuesday when A.I. du Pont elected to forfeit the season finale.

“We knew we had talent and good coaching,” Matthews said. “We knew if we worked hard it would come through. We figured it out after Slam Dunk. It really helped us because going in, we thought we were better than everyone else. It was definitely a wake up call and made us work harder and play better as a team.”

Reach staff writer Tim Mastro at tmastro@newszap.com

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