After convincing wins in their respective conference title games, the Ballou Knights and DeMatha Stags will meet up on March 14 at the Verizon Center for arguably the most anticipated City Title game in years.

The Stags rolled to a 71-52 win over Gonzaga in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC) tournament final on March 8, their fifth conference title in six years. Ballou blasted Eastern, 103-89, in the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association (DCIAA) final on March 6 to claim their second consecutive conference crown.

With both teams ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the District, the Stags will enter the game as the top-ranked school and defending city champions. DeMatha beat Ballou, 55-48, in last year’s game, but both teams have a different look this season. The Stags lost last year’s leading scorers Naji Hibbert to graduation and junior Josh Selby after the guard left the team for personal reasons last year.

But DeMatha (29-3) has rebounded nicely. Led by standout guard Quinn Cook, the Stags still finished the regular season as the area’s top team and with a history of success on their side, the Stags coaches and players believe they can play with anybody.

“They have a very good team but DeMatha has a good team also,” Stags head coach Mike Jones said. “We’ve won four out of the last five city championships; I think everybody needs to remember that.”

The WCAC has dominated the City Title game during the last five years. In fact, a DCIAA team hasn’t won a City Title game since 2004 and aside from last year’s seven-point margin, the WCAC had won the previous four title games by an average of 31 points.

Expectations are a little different this year, though. While DeMatha lost a few key players from the previous season, Ballou acquired a pair of their own. Talented guards Zalmico Harmon and Christian Leach transferred to the school last summer to join forces with the DCIAA’s top player in Donte Thomas. The trio combined for 68 points in the Knights win over Eastern, headlined by Thomas’ 32 points. Thomas has led the conference in scoring for the last three years and with the addition of Leach and Harmon, the results have led to a 30-4 record and double-digit wins in 19 games this season.

When faced with competition, Thomas has annihilated all comers this year. His 62 points in two DCIAA playoff games were defined with three-pointers and slashes to the basket. At 6-foot-3, Thomas plays bigger than his listed size and will definitely be on the Stags’ scouting tape this week. Coach Jones may elect to put 6-foot-4 defensive standout Victor Oladipo on Thomas in attempts to slow the high-scoring guard. Whatever the strategy is, Jones isn’t telling on the eve of the biggest game of the year.

“We’re going to play basketball and we’re going to play the best game we can play,” Jones said. “We’re going to prepare the way we need to prepare and we’re going to come up with whatever game plan we need to come up with.”

Perhaps the one thing that will make this game more competitive than either team’s last outing is the fact that this will be the first time since last season’s title game that the schools have played against each other.

Both Ballou’s and DeMatha’s conference title games marked the third meeting between their respected opponents, so familiarity may have played a factor in the wide margins of victory. DeMatha’s 71-59 win over Coolidge in early December was the only matchup between the DCIAA and WCAC for both schools this season.

Just how unfamiliar are the clubs? When Quinn Cook sits down to review film this week, it’ll be the first time all season that he’s seen Ballou play.

“I’m hearing they’re real good,” Cook said. “I haven’t seen them play yet.”
He will on March 14.

 

Stephen D. Riley

Special to the AFRO