The atmosphere was circus-like. Moments before the start of the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC) championship, there was a distinct buzz in the air. As an evenly split crowd continued to fill American University’s Bender Arena on Feb. 28 for their third-straight helping of a Gonzaga vs. DeMatha title game, the anticipation was mounting. Nearly 3,000 patrons were on hand in expectation of a good game, but they never got it. Instead, they witnessed a great one.

For the third consecutive year, the DeMatha Stags (25-7) upended its rival, the Gonzaga Eagles (24-7), in the conference title game, claiming its sixth WCAC championship over the last seven years with a 51-48 victory.

After exploding to a 16-point lead in the middle of the third quarter, the Stags appeared set to make it two-straight blowouts of the Eagles in WCAC title game. DeMatha’s size advantage was evident early as its trio of 6-foot-8-inchers dominated inside. Senior forward Mikael Hopkins, sophomore center BeeJay Anya and junior forward Jerami Grant took turns swatting shots, collecting rebounds and finishing strong inside, a theme the trio has played continuously throughout the year.

“Rebounding and blocking shots …we have the potential to be as good a defensive team as you could possibly have,” DeMatha coach Mike Jones said. “We have three guys back there that will put your shot on the glass if you don’t go up strong.”

Grant (career-high 17 points) in particular, gave Gonzaga fits early. The athletic swingman displayed his full arsenal in the first half with a long three-pointer and a ferocious dunk that sent the DeMatha faithful to a standing ovation. Gonzaga didn’t have an answer for DeMatha’s size to open the game as its best big man, 6-foot-6-inch sophomore forward Kris Jenkins, played less than two minutes of the game with a badly sprained ankle. “I tried to give my teammates what I had but it wasn’t much,” a somber Jenkins said after the game. “I just tried to encourage them and cheer for them and it worked pretty well. We only lost by three and we still had a good look to tie it at the end.”

Jenkins sprained his left ankle in Gonzaga’s semifinal win over McNamara on Feb. 27 but started the second half after DeMatha got out to a 27-17 halftime lead. After nearly two minutes of hobbling, Gonzaga coach Steve Turner pulled the plug on Jenkins’ night and went with what he had. Perhaps inspired by Jenkins’ effort, the Eagles rallied from 16 points down and had a chance to tie the game with less than 10 seconds left, but sophomore forward D.J. Fenner’s two attempts fell short as DeMatha celebrated.

“I’m just proud of my guys,” Turner said. “Playing with the chips down, playing without our leading scorer, to be in a position to tie the game and send it into overtime our guys never quit. They’re winners, even in this loss they’re winners and I could be no more proud to be their coach right now.”

DeMatha will play Theodore Roosevelt (25-5) in the city title game on March 7 at the Verizon Center. Roosevelt defeated Eastern on Feb. 26 in a 62-60 victory to claim the District of Columbia Interscholastic Athletic Association (DCIAA) championship.

Stephen D. Riley

Special to the AFRO