BY CHRIS MCMANES — Winning on the road against quality competition is no easy feat. DeMatha Catholic High School concluded its basketball regular season undefeated in true road games.
The Stags improved to 9-0 as the visitors in Washington Catholic Athletic Conference action with two victories last week. Their only two losses in WCAC play have come at their modern arena, the LT (SEAL) Brendan Looney ’99 Convocation Center.
DeMatha’s six seniors – Markelle Fultz, Reginald Gardner, Kellon Taylor, Johnny Sawyer, Ben Busch and Nate Darling – will play their final regular-season home contest tonight against Paul VI. They will be honored prior to the 6 p.m. tipoff.
The Stags enter the contest 23-4 and are tied with St. John’s atop the WCAC leaderboard with a 15-2 record. The Panthers, from Fairfax, Va., are 17-9 and 10-7. DeMatha is ranked third in the Washington region and 16th in the nation by USA Today.
The game will feature two of the top players in the United States: Paul VI’s V.J. King and Fultz, both McDonald’s All Americans. King, a 6-foot-7 shooting guard who has committed to Louisville, is averaging 22.9 points per game.
Fultz, a 6-4 combo guard who’s heading to Washington, leads DeMatha at 19.1 ppg The four-year DeMatha student who played just two years on varsity, can’t believe his prep career is winding down. The Stags will play one more home game Friday in the first round of the WCAC Tournament.
“It’s crazy, really,” Fultz said. “I’m just trying to make the best of it, my last couple games here. I’m trying to be one of the best to come through DeMatha. Each game, each practice is a step towards that.”
You would think a player now ranked by ESPN as the 10th-best senior in America would have played varsity for three or perhaps even four years. Such is not the case with Fultz. After playing on the freshman team, he suited up for JV as a sophomore. He thinks the move benefitted him.
“I wasn’t disappointed at all. I just looked at it as a learning experience,” he said. “I looked at myself to see what I could do better. I just worked on my game, and I think it helped me a lot – just becoming a better leader and more versatile.”
Stags Coach Mike Jones recently said in a video the decision to keep Fultz on JV was “foolish,” but “[Markelle] persevered through that.”
Playing JV kept Fultz below the national recruiting radar but did nothing to hinder the silky-smooth guard’s transition to starting for one of the top programs in high school basketball history.
Fultz averaged 16.8 points, 7.9 rebounds and 4.3 assists last year for top-ranked DeMatha and was named WCAC Player of the Year. If he doesn’t repeat, he is a lock to be named first-team All-Met by The Washington Post.
Darling, who ventured south from Canada to join the Stags, is the only other senior to have signed a National Letter of Intent to play college basketball. The 6-3 sharpshooting guard will suit up for Jerod Haase at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. UAB (21-5) leads Conference USA with an 11-2 record.
On Feb. 11 at Paul VI – two nights after DeMatha lost 61-54 to St. John’s – Darling canned a 3-pointer with 33 seconds to play in overtime to put the Stags in front, 69-67, in an eventual 71-67 win. He finished with nine points, a shade below his 9.5-point average.
It was Darling’s long-range shooting against St. John’s that helped propel DeMatha to rally from 19 points down and come within four of tying the Cadets with less than a minute to go. He scored 11 straight points in the third quarter on two layups – including a three-point play – and two 3-pointers, one from each wing.
Darling tied his season best by scoring a game-high 19 points in the Stags’ 72-62 victory at St. Mary’s Ryken on Saturday night. He leads DeMatha with 53 3-pointers.
Fultz was limited to six points in that contest, only the second time in 2015-16 he has been held to single digits. In the Stags’ 66-62 triumph at Gonzaga, he scored his WCAC season high of 28 points. His best scoring output was 31 points on Jan. 2 in a 74-71 loss to Monteverde (Fla.), then the nation’s No. 1 team.
Lorenzo Romar, who will coach Fultz at Washington, likes the athleticism Fultz brings on both ends of the court. He and assistant coach Raphael Chillious saw him play at DeMatha in December.
“He’s extremely poised and versatile,” Romar said in a news release when Fultz signed. “He’s a guard with size at 6-4 that’s athletic, can handle the ball and really passes well. He’s got long arms, so he’ll be a great defender for us, and he’s got experience on the big stage.
“When you consider that he was on the junior varsity team as a 10th grader and he’s made this climb this rapidly, … he’s maybe just scratching the surface” as to how good he’ll be.