Eagles soar over Bucs in 61-53 victory for 1st state title

 

Smyrna basketball fans celebrate after they won the DIAA boys state championship game against Caravel at the Bob Carpenter Center in Newark on Saturday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

NEWARK — Smyrna High’s boys’ basketball team never trailed on Saturday afternoon.

But with 6:21 left in the DIAA state championship game, the contest was anything but over.

Underdog Caravel had shaken off a double-digit deficit to pull even with the Eagles.

Smyrna, though, had come too far to let the crown slip from its hands now.

The fifth-seeded Eagles stood tall in the final six minutes, finally putting away a 61-53 victory over the stubborn No. 19 Buccaneers to capture the program’s first state championship before a Carpenter Center crowd of 3,104.

The hard-earned win also gave the Henlopen Conference its first state title in the sport since 1997.

Smyrna’s Azubuike Nwankwo prepares to slam dunk over Caravel in the third quarter. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Sophomore forward Jaymeir Garnett collected a game-high 28 points and 11 rebounds for Smyrna (23-2), which finished the season on an 18-game winning streak.

“We knew we wanted this throughout the year so we worked hard every practice,” said Garnett. “It’s a great group of guys here. I’m just so emotional and so happy for the team. We had a great opportunity to make history and it’s a great experience. To make history means a lot.”

“It’s great,” Smyrna coach Andrew Mears said as his players cut down the net. “I look at these guys who invested so much in the program. That’s what I’m so proud of.

“We had a combination of the right pieces and the drive to do it. Some years you’ve got one but you don’t have the other. … It was a big dream and it was a goal we’d never attained. When you set the goal so high, it seems like it’s very far. But these guys just took it one day at a time.”

In the end, when things got tight on Saturday, the Eagles took it one play at a time.

With the score knotted at 41-41, junior guard Caleb Matthews drove to the basket and was fouled. He completed the three-point play to put Smyrna ahead 44-41 with 5:52 remaining.

Caravel (18-7) never pulled even again.

The Eagles later went on a 9-0 run to grab their biggest lead of the day — 57-45 — with 1:15 on the clock.

Smyrna head coach Andrew Mears cuts a piece of the net. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Garnett and Matthews (16 points) each contributed eight of Smyrna’s final 20 points. Zubi Nwankwo (8 points, 13 rebounds), the 7-foot-2 junior center, also had a dunk with 43 seconds left to put an exclamation point on the win.

“We said, ‘Just keep playing hard,’” said Matthews, who also had seven assists. “We knew nobody’s going to bail us out of that situation. We had to go out there and take it for ourselves. We knew they weren’t going to give it to us, either.

“We just went out there, played hard and finished it off.”

“All year, Coach has been preaching to us, when adversity hits, you respond,” said senior Anthony Watson. “So when adversity hit, we just responded. We sealed the deal and stayed composed. We just got the job done. We had many tests this year to help us prepare for this very moment.”

“We’ve been doing it all year,” said senior Iyair Hinson-Purnell. “We just had to bounce back. We stayed calm, cool and collected.”

Given its considerable height advantage over Caravel, most people thought Smyrna was a comfortable favorite going into Saturday’s game.

And, sure enough, the Eagles built advantages of 14-5 in the first quarter and 25-14 in the second quarter.

But the Bucs found ways to stay close, forcing Smyrna into 15 turnovers and getting 26 points from O’Koye Parker. Caravel used a 20-12 run to tie the contest at 41-41 on a Parker free throw with 6:21 on the clock.

After that, however, Smyrna sank eight of its final 12 shots from the floor and turned the ball over only twice. Matthews was just 6-for-17 in the game, but sank all four of his foul shots to help close out the victory.

“There was a lot of emotion,” said Mears. “Our guys wanted it. We just stayed the course, It got a lot closer, obviously, then you want it to.

“But, the entire time, we still felt confident. We never got outside of who we are as a team. … They knew in the game of basketball there was going to be runs, there were going to be moments for both teams. But then there’s going to be opportunities just to weather the storm and finish the play. I feel like a few of our guys were just waiting for that moment and took advantage.”

The Eagles’ reward for Saturday’s victory was the chance to celebrate with the school’s student section, hold the state championship trophy over their heads and pose for countless pictures.

Smyrna’s Jaymeir Garnett shoots over Caravel in the second half. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

For a program that had never gotten past the state quarterfinals before this season, it was a moment they had only dreamed of.

“It’s an unreal experience,” said Hinson-Purnell. “It hasn’t even hit me yet.”

“It’s something special, something special,” said Watson. “This was my number one goal coming in as a freshman and leaving as a senior. I’m just happy to be here.”

“This is what we were working for the whole season — even before the season started,” said Cole. “It was the way we bonded with each other. We were always on the same page and wanted the same thing.”

“I was sitting there like, ‘Finally,’” said Matthews. “We’ve been here so many times (in the quarterfinals). The last two years, we had a good enough team to win the state championship. Both time we fell short in the elite eight.

“This year, I knew something was different about our team — not just talent-wise. We seemed to fit together a lot more. It showed out there tonight.”

Extra points

Smyrna became only the eighth Henlopen Conference team to win the state crown in the tourney’s 51-year history, joining Milford (1971), Cape Henlopen (1975-76), Indian River (1980-81), Caesar Rodney (1984) and Seaford (‘97). … The Eagles finished with a 43-38 advantage in rebounds. … Smyrna also blocked eight shots, including three each from Matthews and Nwankwo with two from Garnett. … While Smyrna shot 49.1 percent from the floor (27-of-55), Caravel shot just 34 percent (18-for-53). … Trevon Alderman added 10 points for Caravel.

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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