By Chris McManes

DeMatha could rely on two high-level seniors last season. Whenever it needed a key bucket or game-changing play, Rodney Rice and Tyrell Ward could be counted on to deliver. 

But Rice is now at Virginia Tech and Ward at LSU. 

St. Paul VI has such a player in DeShawn Harris-Smith. On Jan. 12, the Maryland signee scored 17 of his game-high 24 points in the first half of PVI’s 76-61 victory at DeMatha’s Looney Convocation Center on Jan. 10.

The Panthers, who came into the game ranked third in the area and sixth in the nation, turned a four-point, first-quarter lead into a 16-point advantage by halftime. They improved to 14-1 and 5-0 in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference. 

Harris-Smith had 10 points in the second period, including two 3-pointers and a fastbreak slam dunk. PVI led by at least nine points after the break.

“We knew we had to be disciplined and we had to be consistent in our approach, and we were really good at some stages of the game, but then we just had letups,” Stags Coach Mike G. Jones said. “This year’s team, to be frank, just doesn’t have the experience. 

“It’s my job as a coach to be patient, to really teach every single day in practice to get our guys to understand the magnitude of just being disciplined and consistent every single second you’re on the court. I think we’ll get there.”

Jaden Winston led DeMatha with 17 points, three rebounds, three steals and five assists. Isaiah Arnold made five 3-pointers for 15 points, and Malcolm Thomas added 13 points. 

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Senior Isaiah Arnold hit 5 of 9 3-pointers for 15 points in DeMatha’s 76-61 loss to St. Paul VI. Courtesy of Ed King

The Stags (11-5, 4-2 WCAC) entered the contest ranked 11th by The Washington Post

After Arnold, who has signed with Augusta (Ga.) University, nailed a trey from the top of the key, DeMatha trailed by just 25-20. PVI responded with a 14-3 run to take a 39-23 lead into the break. 

“We often say in our program we’re a 10-0 run waiting to happen, and we were able to do that today,” Panthers Coach Glenn Farello said. “We got down a little bit and then were able to stretch things out.” 

The Stags led 6-0 when Winston twice found Arnold open for 3-pointers. But they weren’t able to fully take advantage of PVI committing turnovers on five of its first seven possessions. The Panthers finished with 22 turnovers to DeMatha’s 10.

“We had, I think, a 20-rebound margin today and was able to offset some of those turnovers,” Farello said. “I thought they did a really nice job of pressuring us into those turnovers.” 

Junior Ben Hammond added 17 points for PVI on 9 0f 10 shooting with three rebounds and six assists. Sophomore Christian Gurdak had 11 points, seven boards and three blocks for the Panthers, who opened the season winning two games in London. 

Constructing a winning program

Jones is in his first year leading the Stags. He inherited a team that is neither big underneath nor as talented as recent DeMatha squads. He does, however, have a lot of good players and prepares them well. 

“We just didn’t execute our gameplan very well [tonight],” Jones said. “It’s my job to get our guys to buy in and understand the intricate part of what we need to do from a defensive standpoint and an offensive standpoint to be successful.”

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Senior Mason So launches a jump shot against St. Paul VI. The shooting guard played for first-year DeMatha Coach Mike G. Jones at St. Stephen’s / St. Agnes School. Courtesy of Ed King

Farello knows well how tough it is to establish a new program in the WCAC. He came to PVI in 2007 after winning a state championship (2002) at Eleanor Roosevelt. It took him five years to win his first WCAC title. He notched his third one last year. 

“I went through that 15 years ago – it’s hard – you have a lot of respect for the league you’re walking into,” Farello said. “[DeMatha] has some great players, and Mike is a fantastic coach. He’ll get things rolling for sure, and he already has.”

Jones and Farello have competed against each other several times from when Jones was head coach at St. Stephens/St. Agnes. Farello said it will take his colleague some time to put his mark on the program.

“It’s getting your culture, your identity, your vision, and getting everyone to buy in,” he said. “And then when you’re playing against some teams that already have, with guys that have been there three or four years, it’s a challenge. 

“But I think Mike is up to the task for sure.”

The Stags followed up the loss with a 72-59 victory at Bishop Ireton on Friday Jan. 13. 

St. Jerome star playing well for Panthers

PVI freshman Jordan Smith, who played the past two years for St. Jerome, brought high energy off the bench against DeMatha. During one sequence in the third period, he made a free throw, hit a floater and raced downcourt to block a layup.

“Smitty just contributes so much,” Farello said. “I thought he did a great job.”

Smith helped lead the Panthers to four victories in the City of Palms Classic in Fort Meyers, Fla. 

“He was voted Mr. Hustle for the week, which is a great honor for him,” Farello said. “He brings so much value to the team. He does a little bit of everything. He competes and rebounds and defends, and his basketball IQ is off the charts. I’m really excited about what he can be; he already is a lot of those things. 

“He’s a winner.”

Smith played a key role in St. Jerome’s going 25-0 in 2020-21 and winning the CYO Mid-Atlantic City Championship last year. He scored 31 points in the title game and was named MVP. 

Upcoming games – The Stags play Bishop Loughlin in the Spalding Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass., on Sunday Jan. 15 at 10 a.m. 

On Tuesday Jan. 17, DeMatha hosts No. 2 St. John’s. Tipoff is set for 7:30 p.m. 

Chris McManes (mick-maynz) covers DeMatha basketball for the Hyattsville Life & Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @ChrisMcManes1.