Defending state champ Smyrna returns to boys state final: Eagles edge Sanford 47-45, will face St. Elizabeth for title

Smyrna’s Caleb Matthews, left, celebrates with Greg Bloodsworth after the Eagles edged Sanford in the boys’ basketball state semifinals at the Carpenter Center on Thursday night. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

NEWARK — It was played with the maneuvering of a chess match and the tension of a championship game.

Only time will tell if Thursday night’s much-anticipated semifinal showdown between Smyrna and Sanford decided the boys’ basketball state crown or not.

All the third-seeded Eagles knew was that it took everything they had to earn their 47-45 victory over the No. 7 Warriors before a Carpenter Center crowd of 3,517 that spent much of the second half on the edge of their seats.

When it was finally over, defending state champion Smyrna (22-3) had its second-straight ticket to the state finals.

Smyrna’s Jaymeir Garnett shoots against Sanford’s Jyare Davis in the second quarter during the state semifinals at the Carpenter Center on Thursday night. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

The Eagles will face underdog St. Elizabeth (18-6), the ninth seed, which will be in the title game for the first time in its history after upsetting No. 5 Caravel, 57-41, in Thursday’s first semifinal. The finals will be played on Saturday at noon at the Carpenter Center.

After finding a way to get past Sanford (17-6), though, Smyrna’s players were feeling a sense of pride but mostly relief.

“That was probably my toughest game in four years to play in,” said senior guard Caleb Matthews, who netted a team-high 18 points. “We didn’t shoot the ball particularly well but we defended well, especially in that fourth quarter. We made some big plays on defense and made enough shots to win.”

“It’s a big relief,” junior forward Jaymeir Garnett said with a smile. “You don’t understand, we worked so hard all season. We had to finish strong and we got a good win at the end. It was exciting.”

“Everything mattered,” said senior guard Greg Bloodsworth. “We just fought the whole game.”

In a game the Eagles trailed by eight at halftime, they took the lead for good with 1:20 remaining. That’s when Garnett (12 points, 11 rebounds) put back his own miss to give Smyrna a 41-39 advantage.

Sanford then had a close-range shot bounce off the rim. The 5-foot-8 Bloodsworth came up with the loose ball with about 48 seconds left.

Smyrna fans celebrate the Eagles’ win over Sanford in the boy’s basketball state semifinals at the Carpenter Center on Thursday night. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

Smyrna’s Caleb Matthews drives against Sanford’s Sean Williams in the first quarter of the boys’ basketball state semifinals at the Carpenter Center on Thursday night. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

From there, the Warriors had to keep intentionally fouling and Matthews — as he usually does — kept sinking foul shots. The senior guard went 6-for-6 from the free throw line in the last 40 seconds, giving Smyrna a four-point lead each time.

So while the Warriors kept scoring — with the Eagles being careful not to foul — they didn’t get any closer than two.

At last, when Sanford’s Corey Perkins scored to cut the Smyrna lead to 47-45, there were only five seconds on the clock. Garnett, as he had been reminded to do, just held onto the ball as the last seconds ticked away.

“I just knew going in that it was going to come down to the last possession either way — whether we win it or we lose it,” said Smyrna coach Andrew Mears. “With a team like Sanford and the guys that we have, I just knew it was going to be a four-quarter battle. … We were able to just make a few more plays.

“It was just two really good programs going after it — two programs with a couple All-State guys. It was fun. Credit to Sanford, they’re a very well-run program. They’ve got some very, very impressive players. And I think we do as well. It was two teams really getting after it.”

That Smyrna was able to overcome a 25-17 halftime deficit was a testament to its resilience. The Eagles hit just 5-of-31 from the floor in the first half with Matthews and Bloodsworth both going 0-for-5 from three-point range.

Smyrna’s Jaymeir Garnett shoots against Sanford’s Nnanna Njoku in the second quarter during the state semifinals at the Carpenter Center on Thursday night. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

But Smyrna got right back in the game by starting the second half on a 7-0 run. The Eagles then took their first second-half lead at 28-27 on a Bloodsworth pull-up jumper with 3:18 left in the third quarter.

The game went back and forth from there, with both squads briefly holding no more than three-point leads. All told, the contest featured nine lead changes and six ties.

Sanford standout Jyare Davis finished with a game-high 19 points. The Eagles also had to contend with the Warriors’ 6-foot-8 freshman, Nnanna Njoku, who had 15 points and three blocked shots.

Njoku, though, only had seven points after scoring the Warriors’ first eight points of the game. Smyrna’s big man, Nalik Veasley-Johnson (4 points, 7 rebounds, 2 steals), battled him all night while getting plenty of double-team help.

The Eagles limited Sanford to just six points in the third quarter.

“It was pretty tough,” said Garnett. “They’re some good athletes. They’re competitive, we’re competitive. It was a big-time game. We just battled until the end.”

A year ago, Smyrna became the first downstate squad to win the state title since Seaford in 1997. Now the Eagles will try to become the first Henlopen Conference school to take back-to-back state crowns since Indian River in 1980-81.

“We’re excited,” said Garnett. “We’re not going to back off, no way. We’re going to play hard all four quarters — until the buzzer goes off.”

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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