By Chris McManes

First-year DeMatha basketball coach Mike G. Jones is continuing a tradition started by the late, great Morgan Wootten: play a challenging non-conference schedule to prepare for the rigors of the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference.

The Stags, fresh off a split of games in the National High School Hoops Festival at the Looney Convocation Center, head south this weekend to play two strong teams in North Carolina. 

On Friday (Dec. 16), DeMatha faces Word of God Christian Academy (5-3) at Broughton High School in Raleigh at 8:30 p.m. The Stags play Broughton (5-3) on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. 

Both contests come in the Caps Classic Jimmy V High School Showcase to benefit the V Foundation for cancer research. 

“Our goal is to try to make the schedule really, really hard on the front end to prepare us for the league because I know it’s going to be tough,” Jones said. “That way we can do some things special here in the league.” 

New DeMatha head coach Mike Jones instructs his team during a timeout in the Stags’ 62-55 win over Archbishop Ryan. Courtesy of Chris McManes

DeMatha (4-2), ranked 27th in the nation by MaxPreps, has lost to No. 26 Notre Dame (Sherman Oaks, Calif.) and beaten 2022 Maryland 4A state champion Eleanor Roosevelt. The Stags open WCAC play Tuesday Dec. 20 at Good Counsel, which is ranked 12th locally. 

DeMatha lost at home Dec. 10 to No. 18 John Marshall of Richmond, Va., 69-62, before bouncing back the next day with a 62-55 victory over Archbishop Ryan of Philadelphia.

The big difference in the two performances was the Stags’ shooting. They were 18 of 71 (25.4 percent) against Marshall and 21 of 56 (37.5 percent) vs. Ryan. 

DeMatha senior Mason So hit a reverse layup as part of a three-point play in the Stags’ 62-55 victory over Archbishop Ryan at the Looney Convocation Center. Courtesy of Chris McManes

DeMatha fell behind 15-4 to Marshall before scoring 10 straight points. The game was knotted at 48 with 5:58 to play when the Justices went on an 8-0 run. A 3-pointer by junior A.J. McClary pulled the Stags to within four with 40 seconds left. They would get no closer.

North Carolina State recruit Dennis Parker led Marshall with 26 points. Jason Rivera had 14 points and 13 rebounds.

McClary scored 16 points in just 15 minutes off the bench and didn’t miss a shot. He made five field goals, including three 3-pointers, and all three of his free throws.

“A.J.’s playing at a high level. He’s probably our most energetic guy who can guard [point guards, shooting guards and small forwards], depending on the team,” Jones said. “He just plays so hard, which separates him from a lot of the other guys. He’s willing to do all the little things at a high level.

“That’s why he gets starter minutes.”

Jaden Winston added 10 points for DeMatha, and senior classmate Prashant Hill had nine points and eight rebounds. 

Winston scored a team-high 11 points in the win over Ryan. Four players (Mason So, Isaiah Arnold, McClary and Adam Fox) added nine points apiece. Eight guys played 13 or more minutes as Jones searches for his best rotation. 

“We typically go about 10 deep,” he said. “We trust all the guys. It’s just kind of like who’s doing the best in practice, who’s picking up the concepts offensively and defensively. And then we just kind of go with that. We always have that next-man-up mentality.”

Trailing Ryan 26-24 at halftime, the Stags opened the third quarter with an 11-2 sprint. Arnold scored five points during the sequence and assisted on a runout layup by McClary. A basket by Lewis Logan just inside the fourth period gave DeMatha its biggest lead, 49-37.

“The third quarter is our quarter in most games,” Arnold said. “We try to execute early in the third quarter to get the defense out of their 2-3 zone. We started executing really well, and they started turning the ball over a lot. So we got a lot of easy fastbreak layups. 

“Once we got our momentum going, we were gone from there.” 

The Raiders kept chipping away and were behind by only four points with 3:07 remaining. So then hit a reverse layup, was fouled and converted the three-point play, and Fox made a follow shot. Ryan got to within six but was forced to foul. The Stags sank 4 of 6 free throws in the final 1:14.

Like most championship coaches, Jones stresses defensive intensity.

“Our defense is always going to keep us in the ballgame, no matter who we play, no matter where we are,” he said. “So that’s why I’m willing to play anybody anywhere because I feel like defensively, we’re a very good team. We’ve just got to learn how to value every possession.” 

Coaching changes no problem – Arnold has played for three DeMatha head coaches in three seasons. In 2020-21, he played under Mike K. Jones, who left for Virginia Tech. Last year, Pete Strickland was his coach. 

“It’s not a big deal for me. I have good connections with all three,” Arnold said. “They all treated me well. I’ve had a good role for each team. I appreciate the opportunity they presented me.” 

Arnold’s father, Michael, graduated from DeMatha in 1991. He played with Mike K. Jones on the Stags’ undefeated (30-0) 1990-91 team. 

“I knew the coach Jones now from eighth grade when he recruited me,” Arnold said. “The old coach Jones played with my dad’s team; I’ve known him for a real long time. And coach Strickland, he was really good to me.” 

Arnold has committed to play for Augusta (Ga.) University.

Local rankings – The top three teams in The Washington Post’s latest rankings all reside in the WCAC: No. 1 Paul VI (5-0), No. 2 Gonzaga (7-0) and third-ranked St. John’s (4-0). 

DeMatha (4-2) is ninth, Bishop McNamara (3-1) 10th, Good Counsel (6-0) 12th, Bishop O’Connell (2-1) 14th and Bishop Ireton (3-1) 19th

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