NEWARK – Tiny Caravel had mighty Smyrna on the ropes.
After trailing by as many as 11 points, the 19th-seeded Buccaneers tied the DIAA Boys Basketball Tournament championship game with 6:21 to play Saturday. A crowd of 3,104 was on its feet at the Bob Carpenter Center, sensing a monumental upset.
But Jaymeir Garnett, Caleb Matthews and Zubi Nwankwo would not be denied. The Eagles’ Big Three soared higher than ever down the stretch, leading Smyrna to a 61-53 victory for the school’s first state title in this sport.
“We knew nobody was going to bail us out of that situation,” Matthews said. “We had to go out there and take it for ourselves. We knew they weren’t going to give it to us.”
Garnett, a 6-foot-5 sophomore forward, finished with 28 points and 11 rebounds. Matthews, a 6-3 junior guard, had 16 points and seven assists. Nwankwo, a 7-2 junior center who transferred from Kentucky before this season, added eight points and 13 rebounds.
The trio combined to score the last 46 points for fifth-seeded Smyrna (22-2), the first state champion from the Henlopen Conference since Seaford in 1997.
“We just stayed the course,” Eagles coach Andrew Mears said. “It got a lot closer than obviously you ever want it to, but I felt like the entire time, we still felt confident. I felt like we never got totally outside of who were are as a team.”
Smyrna’s shortest starter was 6-2. Caravel’s tallest starter was 6-3. The Eagles outrebounded the Buccaneers 43-28 and blocked eight shots. Still, somehow, Caravel scrapped its way back into contention.
“They didn’t even think it was going to be a game,” Bucs coach Mark Tobin said. “We played really hard all the way down to the fourth quarter. If a few different shots had dropped, we could have been there.”
The Eagles led 14-5 after one quarter. Garnett’s putback made it 25-14 with 2:47 left in the first half, the fifth time Smyrna had scored off of offensive rebounds.
“It’s been our characteristic all year. We can’t help that,” Mears said of his team’s size advantage. “The only thing we can do is just take advantage of it as much of we can. And I thought these guys did that.”
But after trailing 29-21 at the half, Caravel found a way to counter the Eagles’ size.
The Bucs just started running past them. Mandela Montgomery turned a steal into a layup, then scored on a fast break. Then O’Koye Parker scored on another break to pull Caravel within 29-27 with 4:21 left in the third quarter.
“We wanted to push the ball as soon as we get it,” Tobin said. “We knew their height was going to come into play, but if we could get out in front, it would make transition easy for us.”
Garnett banked in two layups, and Nwankwo dunked Matthews’ inbounds lob to push the Eagles’ lead back to 35-27. But Parker hit a floater and popped off of Bradley Kaden’s screen for a 3-pointer, and Trevon Alderman was fouled on a breakaway and hit a free throw to get the Bucs within 37-36.
Matthews drove for a couple of buckets, only to see Kaden somehow get a layup past Nwankwo. Then Parker’s free throw tied it at 41 with 6:21 to go, the first tie since 0-0.
“We tried to spread them out, because they’ve got towers,” Tobin said. “We tried to penetrate and kick, or go to the rim. I think it was effective after we made the adjustment.”
But Matthews drove again, hit the layup and drew contact. The three-point play with 5:52 left gave Smyrna the lead for good.
“We ran a couple of plays for me to get to the basket,” Matthews said. “In the first half, I just wasn’t converting shots. Second half, I just knew I had to get in there. If we were going to win this game, I had to get in the paint and finish.”
A tic-tac-toe pass from Matthews to Nwankwo to Garnett added another layup, and Nwankwo scored off his own miss. But Parker’s 18-footer and tip-in off yet another break kept the Bucs within 48-45.
Finally, Smyrna’s size proved to be too much. Garnett drove for a layup, Matthews penetrated for another three-point play and Garnett twisted for two more layups as the Eagles’ lead ballooned to 57-45 with 1:15 remaining.
“To see him perform on this stage, it’s something special,” Mears said of Garnett. “He definitely put it all together.”
Nwankwo put the icing on the cake, snagging Matthews’ pass and giving the rim a two-handed stress test with 43 seconds to go.
“When you set the goal at its highest, it seems like it’s very far from obtaining,” Mears said. “But these guys just took it one day at a time, and we finally got here.”
Parker scored 26 and Alderman added 10 for Caravel (18-7), the first double-digit seed to reach the championship game since St. Georges lost to Salesianum as a No. 10 seed in 2014.
Contact Brad Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter: @BradMyersTNJ