Smyrna boys host Caravel in title game rematch

Smyrna’s Caleb Matthews. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

SMYRNA — Azubuike Nwankwo isn’t here anymore.

But his 7-foot-2 frame still casts a shadow over the Smyrna High boys’ basketball team.

People still tell the Eagles that the only reason that they won the program’s first DIAA state title last March was because they had Nwankwo on the floor.

“You heard that all the time,” said senior guard Caleb Matthews. “You read about it — the seven-footer’s gone so Smyrna’s not going to be any good anymore. So we’ve just got to show people.”

The rebuilt Eagles (3-0) will get the perfect opportunity to prove they’re still pretty good when they host Caravel (1-0) today at 6:15 p.m. in a rematch of last year’s state championship game.

Smyrna returns only two starters while the Buccaneers have most of their roster back from last year. The Eagles won the title game, 61-53.

Considering that Smyrna’s two returning starters are also two of its best players, though, the Eagles aren’t giving up the title without a fight.

Smyrna’s Jymeir Garnett. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

Matthews was a first-team All-Stater while junior Jaymeir Garnett was an honorable mention pick. Of course, Smyrna has also picked up another honorable-mention All-State selection in St. Thomas More transfer Greg Bloodsworth, a senior guard.

“Whether they inherited the state championship or they were a part of it last year, either way there’s a big target,” coach Andrew Mears said about his players. “With that big target comes a lot of attention to detail every single day.

“We’re holding everybody to a high standard. For some of our young guys — our new pieces — we’re coming into a lot of intensity right away. But that goes with the nature of where we’re at right now.”

“We’ve got a lot to prove,” said Garnett. “The state doubted us because we had a seven-footer last year. But we’re going to prove them wrong this year.”

The Eagles come into tonight’s showdown riding a 21-game winning streak. They haven’t lost since falling to Sanford, 64-54, on Dec. 29, 2016 at Slam Dunk to the Beach.

Overall, Smyrna has won 25 of its last 27 games.

The Eagles are well aware that Caravel has a chip on its shoulder. The Bucs also have a first-team All-Stater in senior O’Koye Parker.

“It’s exciting,” Matthews said about tonight’s game. “I don’t think I gave my best performance out there last year in the state championship (game). So I’ve been waiting for this matchup since we scheduled it. It should be a fun game.”

Smyrna head coach Andrew Mears. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

“They’ve got a good team back,” said Garnett. “So it’s going to be a good, competitive game. … They’re going to want to beat us.”

Bloodsworth has made an immediate impact for the Eagles, averaging 17 points in his first three games.

Smyrna has also gotten contributions from another transfer, junior Nalik Veasley-Johnson. The 6-foot-6 forward’s family moved here from North Carolina in the off-season.

He’s helped offset the loss of Nwankwo, who transferred out of state before the start of his senior year.

Mears like Veasley-Johnson’s ability.

“He has a high basketball IQ,” said Mears. “He’s a got a lot of tools and then also a lot of potential. When he comes in hungry every day, it’s a coach’s dream.”

But Matthews and Garnett will also tell you that Smyrna’s younger players, ones that have come up through the system, are ready for the challenge, too.

“We’ve got great young guards coming in,” said Garnett. “They just want to compete. At the end of the day, they play hard.

“There’s a lot more unselfishness. There’s so many pieces that can score.”

“We’ve got a lot of new guys who can play,” said Matthews.

Capturing Smyrna’s first basketball state crown was a big deal for last year’s players. They celebrated it for a while last spring.

But the challenge of trying to win back-to-back state championships is exciting for the players who are back.

“Definitely, it’s a lot harder playing without a seven-footer,” Matthews admitted. “Playing defense, you’ve got to stay in front of your man a lot more. He just made the game so much easier. We loved having him here. It was sad when he had to go.

“You go in every day thinking that you’re state champs. But you’ve got (only) two guys from that team that are back. These (new) guys that are here, they’re ready to work hard. They want to do what we did last year.”

Extra points

Radio station Delaware 105.9-FM is airing Friday’s Caesar Rodney-Cape Henlopen boys’ game. Tipoff is scheduled for 6:15 p.m. … A couple downstate teams are playing in the Rumble by the River at St. Georges on Saturday. Dover faces Howard at 2 p.m. with St. Thomas More taking on St. Georges at 4 p.m. … Two Unified basketball games will be held at this year’s Slam Dunk to the Beach tourney at Cape Henlopen. The contests will be held prior to the first sessions on Dec. 27 and 29.

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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