NEWARK – The new Big Red Machine keeps rolling on.
Smyrna dominated St. Georges with size and defense on Thursday night, pulling away in the fourth quarter for a 51-32 victory in the semifinals of the DIAA Boys Basketball Tournament at the Bob Carpenter Center.
The fifth-seeded Eagles (22-2) will carry a 17-game winning streak into Saturday’s 1 p.m. championship game against 19th-seeded Caravel. With 7-foot-2 junior center Zubi Nwankwo improving game by game, the Buccaneers will be facing a tall task.
“Everybody is playing well, and we’re playing as a team,” said Smyrna guard Caleb Matthews, who had 12 points and seven rebounds Thursday. “It’s going to be hard to stop.”
Nwankwo played perhaps his best game of the season, taking total control of the paint with 11 points, 15 rebounds and seven blocked shots.
“What impresses me is, with the stats that he may have put up tonight, he’s going to be hungry and he’s going to be humble,” Smyrna coach Andrew Mears said. “… He did put it all together on this big stage.”
The ninth-seeded Hawks (19-5) were trying to reach the final for the third time in four years. But St. Georges’ dynamic guard duo of Kyson Rawls and Nah’Shon Hyland struggled to find the range. The Eagles’ Iyair Hinson-Purnell, Zion Cole and Anthony Watson shadowed their every move.
Hyland was hot early, but cooled later and scored 16 points on 7-for-23 shooting before fouling out with 1:36 to play. Hinson-Purnell guarded Rawls most of the night, limiting him to four points on 1-for-12 shooting.
“He did a great job not fouling him, staying in front, forcing him to take long jumpers,” Matthews said of Hinson-Purnell. “And when he did [drive], he had to run into a 7-footer.”
Hyland was the story early, scoring eight points in the first quarter, then opening the second quarter with a 3-pointer from the left wing for a 14-11 lead. But Smyrna closed the half on a 13-4 run, with Cole spotting up in the right corner and turning Matthews’ pass into a 3-pointer for a 24-18 halftime lead.
Mears knew it was far from over.
“We knew with that team, they’ve been in this moment, they’ve been on this stage before,” the Smyrna coach said. “Their two guards have tremendous experience, along with coach Rod [Griffin]. We just wanted to continue to execute our game plan.”
Nwankwo opened the third quarter with a jump hook, and Matthews banged a deep 3 for a 29-18 lead. The teams went back and forth from there, with Hyland dropping a short jumper and Rawls hitting a free throw to pull St. Georges within 36-30 with 4:19 to play.
That’s when the Eagles found another gear. Watson drained a 3 from the left wing, Nwankwo hit a free throw and a layup, Jaymeir Garnett scored on a fast break set up by a Nwankwo block and Cole made two free throws as Smyrna surged to a 46-30 lead with 1:34 remaining.
The Eagles dominated the glass, racking up a 42-30 rebounding advantage. Garnett finished with 16 points and 12 boards. Tristan Guild had eight rebounds for the Hawks.
Now, Smyrna will try to become the first downstate team to win a DIAA boys basketball title since Seaford in 1997.
“We’re just looking to get Smyrna’s win,” Mears said. “We’re looking to get our community’s win, and we’re looking to get our school’s win.”
Contact Brad Myers at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter: @BradMyersTNJ