Newcomers helped Smyrna return to boys hoop title game

Smyrna’s Nalik Veasley-Johnson shoots against Sanford’s Nnanna Njoku in the first quarter during the state semi finals boys basketball championship at the University of Delaware on Thursday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

SMYRNA — The name on the jerseys is the same, as is the stage, but the faces are different on the Smyrna High boys’ basketball team.

Smyrna will attempt to win back-to-back state titles today as the third-seeded Eagles meet ninth seed St. Elizabeth in the DIAA championship game at noon, hosted at the Bob Carpenter Center in Newark.

Only two Henlopen Conference teams have won two boys’ basketball state championships in a row. Indian River High in 1980 and 1981 was the most recent while Cape Henlopen High also accomplished the feat in 1975 and 1976.

Smyrna returned All-State players Caleb Matthews and Jaymeir Garnett from a year ago, but the Eagles needed to replace three starters from last year’s title team.

“I don’t know if you can expect it with a new group,” said Smyrna coach Andrew Mears. “New guys, new pieces, it’s about chemistry so how do you get to this point? It is our end goal but obviously we’ve had a different path in getting here. Everybody has the same common goal but it seemed like the path was different this year, maybe even a bit tougher.”

Smyrna, which used only six players in Thursday’s semifinal victory over Sanford, received a boost from three transfers. It helped replace what the Eagles lost when 7-foot-1 center Zubi Nwankwo moved to Ohio in the offseason.

Greg Bloodsworth, Nalik Veasley-Johnson and Isaiah Wilson have each added a new dimension to Smyrna this year.

Bloodsworth, who has lived in the Smyrna School District his entire life, transferred from St. Thomas More for his senior season. Veasley-Johnson was born in Delaware before his family moved to North Carolina, but he returned to Smyrna this year as a junior.

Then there’s Isaiah Wilson, who was the quarterback on Smyrna’s state championship football team this past fall. Wilson moved from Glasgow to Smyrna in the offseason.

He did not play basketball as a junior at Glasgow and came off the bench for Smyrna most of the season, but he was in the starting lineup for the semifinals.

“Even though we’re all transfers they’re basically like my brothers,” Wilson said of the chemistry with the newcomers. “I wouldn’t want to play with anybody else. Even with all the new faces, we knew we had a lot of skills.”

Wilson scored six points in the 47-45 victory against Sanford on Thursday. He made a go-ahead three-pointer in the third quarter.

“It definitely was hard to get into the swing of things since I didn’t play last year,” Wilson said. “As time has gone on, I’ve transitioned well into the team. I didn’t think I was going to play much at the start of the season. I hadn’t been on the basketball court in a long time. Defense is more my thing, I take pride in the defense that I do and I’m glad it’s a help to the team.”

Smyrna will be meeting a St. Elizabeth team who is in the championship game for the first time in school history.

St. Elizabeth defeated Caravel, last year’s runner-up, 57-41 in the semifinals on Thursday. St. Elizabeth had lost to Caravel 75-59 in the regular season.

“The kids have realized if you want to beat good teams you have to play good team defense,” said St. Elizabeth coach Matthew Rubincam. “We’ve changed our defense completely. Our kids are learning how to rotate and we’re doing a heck of a job on the defensive end.”

This year’s version of Smyrna did do something last season’s team couldn’t do — beat Sanford.

Smyrna lost to Sanford last year in the regular season at the Slam Dunk to the Beach tournament. While Sanford wasn’t on Smyrna’s schedule this year, the Eagles won the rematch Thursday.

But Mears said he wouldn’t allow his team to celebrate too much with one more game on the horizon.

“That game gets you a pat on the back, the next one gets you a ring,” Mears said. “Our guys will be focused.”

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