By CHRIS McMANES — DeMatha basketball coaches see the incremental improvement in 7-foot center Hunter Dickinson on an almost daily basis. For those who only see him perform in games, the improvement has been eye-opening.

Especially in the last two weeks.

On Feb. 26, Dickinson helped lead the Stags to their first Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championship since 2011. A week later, he was named Most Valuable Player of another event DeMatha won. Just a sophomore, he agreed he has elevated his play since the end of the regular season.

“My mojo went up,” Dickinson said. “The playoffs just bring something out of you. They change you.”

The transformation continued March 8 when Dickinson’s double-double helped propel the Stags into the semifinals of what former DeMatha Coach Morgan Wootten calls, “The most prestigious Catholic high school tournament in the country.”

Dickinson produced 15 points and 13 rebounds in the Stags’ 59-48 victory over St. Maria Goretti in the first round of the Alhambra Catholic Invitational Tournament (ACIT). DeMatha (31-5) advances to the championship semifinals of the 58th-annual event where a familiar foe awaits: WCAC rival Paul VI.

Game time is 7:30 tonight at Bobcat Arena on the campus of Frostburg (Md.) State University. Paul VI, which went undefeated during the WCAC regular season but lost in the semifinals of the conference tournament, will try to beat the Stags for the third time this season. (UPDATE – DeMatha won, 72-50.)

The other semifinal pits O’Connell against Gonzaga, making it an all-WCAC final four. Each of the Washington-area teams beat squads from the Baltimore Catholic League. The latter teams drop into the consolation bracket.

Junior Jahmir Young added 13 points, five rebounds and four assists in DeMatha’s victory over Maria Goretti (29-9), which upset the Deer Men in last year’s ACIT opening round. He was 10-for-10 from the free throw line, and sophomore Earl Timberlake went 8-for-8 en route to 12 points.

According to Kevin Dunleavy of Herald-Mail Media, Dickinson scored 13 of his points after halftime to help the Stags rally from a 26-19 deficit. His stat line included three blocked shots.

“Dickinson also was a force at the defensive end,” Dunleavy wrote. “His presence had much to do with the struggles of Goretti’s 6-7 center Abdou Tsimbila, who hit just 2 of 10 shots, and Goretti’s poor performance from inside the arc — 10 of 36 (27.8 percent) — while it made 8 of 19 (42.1 percent) from beyond it.”

After being named first-team All-WCAC with teammate Justin Moore, Dickinson put up 12 points and nine boards in DeMatha’s one-point triumph over Gonzaga for the WCAC championship. He was physically assertive throughout the contest and pleaded his case to the officials when he thought he was fouled.

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DeMatha sophomore Hunter Dickinson often takes his opponents’ best shots around the basket. Photo courtesy of Ed King.

He began the game wearing a brace on his left knee after he injured it early in the Stags’ first-round victory over Bishop Ireton and did not return. He exited the title game with a bloody scratch on his right arm.

The attention Dickinson draws underneath frees space around the 3-point line and forces defenders to pick their poison. Stray inside and you increase the likelihood a perimeter player gets an uncontested shot or has ample room to drive. Concentrate too much on 3-point shots and ball denial, and smaller post players can find themselves defending Dickinson one-on-one.

This interplay helped Moore, a 6-foot-4 guard, post a career-high 34 points in DeMatha’s 74-63 win over O’Connell in the WCAC semifinals.

“Hunter has been great for us,” Moore said. “He started out a little slow, not playing as hard. But now he’s coming out aggressive, playing hard, rebounding, scoring. He’s great for us.”

In the Goretti win, swingmen Young and Timberlake combined to score 12 of the Stags’ 25 fourth-quarter points. Everyone should benefit when a talented big man such as Dickinson is on the floor.

“His presence helps everybody,” Moore said. “The defense has to collapse on him, and we get open looks, open drives.”

Dickinson also passes well out of the post. “He’s probably one of the best passers in [the league],” Moore said. “He finds our guys.

Dickinson and Moore seem to benefit the most from each other’s presence.

“Justin does a lot of things that maybe he doesn’t get credit for,” DeMatha Coach Mike Jones said. “His leadership is very strong. Without him on the court, people can just kind of key on Hunter. So, they work very well off each other.

“I’m sure Hunter probably feels the benefit of Justin being on the floor. But then Justin gets open looks because Hunter’s on the floor, too, because you’ve got to pay attention to the post.”

Jones likes to see Dickinson concentrate on scoring inside because “he’s so dominant down on the block” and because the Stags have a bevy of talented outside shooters. He acknowledges that Dickinson is a good shooter.

His range and touch from outside was on full display in DeMatha’s 64-58 Maryland Private Schools Championship victory over Rock Creek Christian on March 5. Dickinson scored 13 of his team’s first 19 points. Nine came on a trio of 3-pointers.

“We’re OK with him shooting 3’s when it’s within the flow of the offense,” Jones said. “And he took good ones tonight.”

Dickinson capped the Stags’ three victories in the private schools event with 31 points and 21 rebounds in the championship game. He spent most of the night going head to head with Rock Creek’s Jermaine Harris, a strong and agile 6-8 center who has committed to play next year at Rhode Island. Dickinson’s performance netted him MVP honors.

“He’s becoming more of a force for us every game,” Timberlake said. “He plays offense and defense. He’s doing it.”

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DeMatha’s Hunter Dickinson uses his 7-foot frame and jumping ability to shoot over smaller opponents. Photo courtesy of Ed King.

Dickinson’s open-court defense and ballhandling ability are also on the rise. In the first half of the Stags’ 54-53 WCAC championship game victory over Gonzaga, he stole a pass beyond halfcourt and dribbled straight to the basket for a layup.

“This was one of his best defensive performances,” Moore said. “I’m very proud of him. He really performed today.”

Dickinson’s biggest play came with his team defending against a potential game-winning shot. While Dickinson guarded his man, an Eagle ballhandler tried to free himself from his defender with a spin move. After he spun, however, Dickinson stole the ball and was fouled. The play came with three seconds remaining and virtually gift-wrapped DeMatha’s record 40th Catholic league crown.

“That was pretty good,” Jones said. “Two steals by the big 7-foot guy that was getting his butt kicked all night long in terms of guys leaning on him and everything. A lot of players can get frustrated in that moment. Hunter, for the last two nights, did not.

“He brought his ‘A’ game this weekend.”

Expect to see more of the same from Dickinson and his teammates.

Chris McManes (mick-maynz) writes about DeMatha athletics for the Hyattsville Life & Times.