No one paid much attention to Caravel when the DIAA Boys Basketball Tournament bracket was released.
Sure, the Buccaneers had a big scorer. But they were seeded 19th, and would have to win at No. 14 Hodgson and No. 3 Salesianum just to reach the quarterfinals.
Now, all eyes will be on Caravel at 1 p.m. Saturday, when the Buccaneers attempt to cap their dream season with an unexpected championship at the Bob Carpenter Center.
The only problem: Smyrna represents Caravel’s biggest hurdle. Literally.
The fifth-seeded Eagles (22-2) have won 17 straight since the calendar flipped to 2017. Smyrna has won its three tournament games by an average of 21.3 points. And they have a 7-foot-2 junior – Zubi Nwankwo – who had 11 points, 15 rebounds and seven blocked shots in a 51-32 semifinal win over St. Georges on Thursday.
“Impacting the game, just affecting shots and rebounding the basketball, he’s a total game changer,” Eagles guard Caleb Matthews said.
The Buccaneers (18-6) don’t have anyone who can match up with Nwankwo. But they have a junior guard – O’Koye Parker – who is averaging 22.2 points per game, including 24.0 in four tournament games. Parker’s free throw with 2.4 seconds remaining Thursday night gave Caravel a 48-47 semifinal win over St. Thomas More.
“They keep surprising me, these kids,” Bucs coach Mark Tobin said. “I’m like, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to’ and then they just do it. It’s a beautiful thing to see, how much energy and how much excitement these kids are bringing.”
Parker and sophomore Trevon Alderman (11.2 points per game) are definitely the go-to guys for Caravel. They have combined to score 48.3 percent of the team’s points this season, even with Alderman missing six games due to injury. In the quarterfinals and semifinals, they took 55 of the Bucs’ 87 shots (63.2 percent).
“They got really hot at the right time,” Matthews said. “They’ve got a couple of really good players, lot of guys who know how to play their roles, similar to us.”
The Eagles are more balanced, and perhaps more dangerous. Matthews provides a constant 3-point threat, and sophomore forward Jaymeir Garnett produced 16 points and 12 rebounds in the semifinals as Smyrna outrebounded St. Georges 42-30.
The biggest thing the Eagles must guard against may be overconfidence. But Smyrna has the memory of losing in the quarterfinals in each of the last two seasons, and the Eagles will be trying to make history. A state title would be the school’s first in boys basketball, and Smyrna could become the first Henlopen Conference team to win it since Seaford in 1997.
“We haven’t looked over anybody this year,” Eagles coach Andrew Mears said. “The only team we have been concerned with every single night is ourselves. It starts with us.”
The Buccaneers will counter with the energy that comes from being the underdog. It has helped take them this far, and it only has to take them through one more game.
“This experience is once in a lifetime,” Tobin said. “These kids have really got to live in the moment, and they’ve got to understand that they may never get back here again. So enjoy every minute, play with everything, and when you walk away from that floor, don’t leave anything on that floor.”
Contact Brad Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter: @BradMyersTNJ