Tough ending to memorable run for Matthews, Eagles

 

Smyrna’s Caleb Matthews shoots against St. Elizabeth’s Nathan Thomas during the DIAA boys’ basketball state championship game at the Bob Carpenter Center on Saturday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

NEWARK — Four trips to the quarterfinals, two state championship appearances and one state title — that’s what this Smyrna High boys’ basketball team has accomplished in the last four seasons.

And yet, as the Eagles waited to receive their runner-up medals, none of that seemed to matter.

A somber locker room greeted the Eagles after they fell to St. Elizabeth in the championship game, 60-49, on Saturday afternoon at the Carpenter Center.

Smyrna senior star shooting guard Caleb Matthews was asked after the game if the loss would make the Eagles appreciate last year’s title more.

“Maybe,” said Matthews, “but not right now.”

The end came suddenly for Smyrna.

The Eagles led by as many as seven points in the third quarter. They were on top 45-41 with 6:26 left before St. Elizabeth scored the next seven points.

Smyrna cut it to one point on a layup by Matthews and again on Jaymeir Garnett’s layup with 1:45 remaining. That was as close as Smyrna would get though, as St. Elizabeth ended the contest on a 10-0 run.

The Smyrna players buried their heads in their jerseys as St. Elizabeth stormed the court in celebration.

“My heart goes out to them because I know how much they invested in not just the season but the offseason,” said Smyrna coach Andrew Mears. “They bought into a program and gave it their all.

“It’s a tough situation but in the end those situations make people better in life. They understand to battle through adversity and not everything goes your way in the end.”

Smyrna shot just 28.6 percent from the floor in the fourth quarter.

Smyrna coach Andrew Mears comforts  Caleb Matthews in the fourth quarter of the Eagles’ loss to St. Elizabeth. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Mears called St. Elizabeth one of the best defensive teams the Eagles have faced.

“That’s a compliment coming from him,” said St. Elizabeth coach Matthew Rubincam. “He has a great program and I was watching them against Sanford the other night and was like. ‘Do we go back to man-to-man?’

“But I figured we would be crazy to go out of what’s been working. They hit some of those outside shots in the beginning but we didn’t panic. We stuck to the gameplan. If we would have come out into man-to-man I think it could’ve been a different story because we can’t hold them man-to-man. They’re too big and too quick.”

Smyrna had made a habit of closing out victories in the fourth quarter recently.

The Eagles needed a strong fourth quarter in its second-round game to edge Woodbridge. Smyrna did not take the lead for good in its semifinal game against Sanford on Thursday until there was only 1:19 left.

They hit enough free throws down the stretch to hold onto the 47-45 win.

But the shots weren’t falling on Saturday and the Eagles weren’t getting enough stops on the defensive end. St. Elizabeth out-scored them 19-6 in the fourth quarter.

“You always feel like you can make a run,” Matthews said. “But nobody stepped up and made a play, so that’s why we’re in the situation we’re in.”

Mears said he felt especially bad for Matthews. He was the only player on Smyrna who was part of the teams that reached at least the state quarterfinals over the past four seasons.

Matthews was a first-team All-State honoree a year ago and was awarded Delaware’s Gatorade Player of the Year award this past week as a senior.

“His career didn’t end the right way,” Mears said. “But when you look at his resume, he’s one of the more impactful players we’ve seen around here, especially at Smyrna.”

Matthews finished tied with Garnett as Smyrna’s leading scorer in the championship game with 16 points.

Smyrna was in the finals thanks in large part to Matthews. He made 13-of-13 free throws against Sanford to seal Smyrna’s second consecutive finals appearance.

Some St. Elizabeth players said they heard fans saying the real championship game was that semifinal game between Smyrna and Sanford.

“I’ve heard a lot of things,” Rubincam said. “These kids are very confident. They don’t get involved in all that, talking on the Twitter and social media. They stick to their gameplan. I said just stick to what we have to stick to and don’t listen to what people are telling you.”

 

Reach staff writer Tim Mastro at tmastro@newszap.com

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