St. E’s stops Smyrna’s bid for a second state title

 

Smyrna’s Jordan Alford walks off the court as St. Elizabeth players celebrate their victory over the Eagles in the DIAA boys’ basketball state championship game at the Carpenter Center on Saturday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

NEWARK — Smyrna High’s boys’ basketball players had been here so many times before.

With 6:26 left in the fourth quarter, the Eagles were hanging onto a four-point lead.

It wasn’t a big advantage. But defending state champion Smyrna had almost always found a way to make those kind of leads stand up in big games.

This time was different, though.

This time it was ninth-seeded St. Elizabeth that took control down the stretch, upending the No. 3 Eagles, 60-49, to capture the Wilmington Catholic school’s first boys’ basketball state championship on Saturday afternoon before a crowd of 2,432 at the Carpenter Center.

The Vikings (19-6) outscored Smyrna (22-4) by a 19-6 margin in the fourth quarter in stopping the Eagles from becoming the first downstate program to win back-to-back state crowns since 1981.

“They came up with all the big plays at the end,” said Smyrna coach Andrew Mears. “And it wasn’t like we weren’t getting good looks. We just couldn’t put the ball through the hoop when it mattered.

“It is kind of uncharacteristic. But, at the same time, that’s basketball. Those situations happen. … All credit in the world to them (the Vikings). They got hot at the right time this year. They played tremendously hard and they deserve that one.”

“They definitely had a couple guys step up and we didn’t step up and make plays,” senior guard Caleb Matthews said quietly. “It’s that simple.

Smyrna’s Jaymeir Garnett shoots from the key against St. Elizabeth’s. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“We didn’t come out and make plays we usually make. This is what you get when you don’t make plays down the stretch.”

There was something of a strange ending to a back-and-forth contest that included eight lead changes and seven ties.

St. Elizabeth, which got a game-high 17 points from Jordan Brown, was leading 56-49 with 16.8 seconds remaining when the officials called two technicals on Smyrna. The Vikings sank all four foul shots while the Eagles’ Jaymeir Garnett (16 points) was ejected after receiving his second technical of the contest.

All told, St. Elizabeth went 8-for-13 from the foul line in the final 39 seconds alone.

The Vikings were whistled for just four fouls in the game with Smyrna called for 16. St. Elizabeth sank 13-of-18 free throws in the game compared to 5-of-6 shooting for the Eagles.

Mears said he didn’t get a clear explanation for the technical fouls called in the closing seconds.

“I still don’t have clarification exactly on what was going on,” said Mears. “It is what it is. They had momentum at the end. That six-point lead that they had it felt like 10. It felt like a tremendous mountain to have to climb.”

Smyrna, which lost for only the fourth time to an in-state team in the last two seasons, led for 16:18 of the 32-minute game. The contest was also tied for over eight minutes.

With a couple minutes left in the third quarter, the Eagles were up 43-36 and had the ball. But the Vikings came right back, cutting Smyrna’s lead to 43-41 on a Nathan Thomas three-pointer just before the end of the third quarter.

The Eagles still led 45-41 on a pair of Garnett free throws with 6:26 on the clock.

But St. Elizabeth surged ahead, 46-45, with 5:04 remaining on a high, arcing three-pointer from Guy DeBonventura. It was his only basket of the game and Smyrna never led again.

Smyrna coach Andrew Mears accepts the second-place trophy from DIAA Executive Director Thomas Neubauer after the boys’ basketball state championship game at the Carpenter Center on Saturday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“Halfway through the season, the kids realized the game is played in spurts,” said Vikings coach Matt Rubincam. “In the beginning of the season we fell into the trap of, we’d just let it play out.

“We stuck to the gameplan and I told them we’d have to keep them under 50 to win the game. Our defense has been phenomenal throughout the state tournament and that’s what won the game for us.”

The Eagles did pull within 50-49 on Garnett’s basket with 1:42 still left. But Smyrna missed its final three shots from the floor with a pair of turnovers.

St. Elizabeth ended up winning its final nine games of the season. On Saturday, the Eagles simply couldn’t find a way to stop the Vikings.

“Every time we went up five or six, they went down and got a layup,” said Matthews, who also scored 16 points. “It was poor defense on our part and good execution on their part. We didn’t play hard enough. That’s why we lost the game. That’s why we’re sitting in there (in the locker room) in the spot we’re in.”

Many of Smyrna’s players left the court on Saturday with tears in their eyes. As coach, though, Mears could look at it with a little more perspective.

The Eagles went 45-6 over the past two seasons, won the Henlopen Conference title twice, reached the state finals for the first time in program history and captured their first state crown.

Someday those numbers will mean a lot to the players who achieved them.

“This year we were battle tested, that’s for sure,” said Mears. “We’ve been on some big stages. We played a really tough schedule and we were able to overcome most of those situations. This was just one of those that went the other way.

“To be even be at this stage — to be in the state finals — is a memory in itself and something to be proud of.”

Free throws

Matthews and Greg Bloodsworth (9 points) were a combined 7-of-15 on three-pointers. … After going 13-of-13 from the foul line in the semifinals, Matthews didn’t get to the line on Saturday. … St. Elizabeth had three players finish in double figures. Besides Brown, Justin Money had 14 while Thomas added 11. … Smyrna center Nalik Veasley-Johnson, who injured his left knee in Thursday’s semifinal win over Sanford, played only 22 minutes. …. St. Elizabeth became the ninth private school to win the boys’ basketball state title in the last 13 seasons. … Henlopen Conference teams are now 8-18 in boys’ state championship games.

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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