NEWARK – As the fourth quarter began Saturday inside the Carpenter Center, Caravel Academy students – collected behind the east basket – began to chant “I believe that we will win!,” the volume and enthusiasm growing with each refrain.
That may have seemed an overly confident concept at times during the first three quarters of the DIAA boys basketball final, in which Smyrna never trailed and led by as many as 11 points.
But momentum had made a momentous shift in Caravel’s favor. The Bucs trailed just 39-36 as the third period ended.
Then, less than two minutes into the fourth period, O’Koye Parker’s free throws tied it 41-41 for the Bucs. It hadn’t been that close since 5-foot-10 Brandon Sengphachanh conceded the opening jump ball to Smyrna 7-footer Azubuike Nwankwo, and Smyrna quickly scored.
Suddenly, Smyrna’s first state boys basketball championship, which the No. 5-seeded Eagles appeared on a path toward attaining, seemed in serious jeopardy. Momentum can be a powerful weapon and difficult to thwart in a game matching teenage athletes, and there was generational evidence right there on the floor.
In the 1989 state boys basketball final, played nearby at the Delaware Field House, St. Mark’s had trailed heavily favored Newark by 15 with less than seven minutes left but came back to win in stunning fashion 58-57.
As fate would have it, Smyrna junior Caleb Matthews, whose father Jason was one of St. Mark’s heroes that night, answered Parker’s two free throws with a 3-point play – driving to the basket and then draining the foul shot that he earned – to make it 44-41.
HIGH SCHOOLS: Ursuline state title a product of ruthless efficiency
PHILLIES: Eickoff key to starting rotation
And after a missed Caravel 3-pointer, Nwankwo fed Jaymeir Garnett charging to the basket and Garnett, as he did throughout a game in which he was the clear MVP, finished the play to make it 46-41.
That quickly, Smyrna, which seemed to be listing, regained its composure and its confidence.
Neither wavered again en route to a 61-53 victory that, for the third time in 15 months, left vehicles packed full of people dressed in red heading south out of town on 896, delirious with pride and joy while revealing that nothing beats community support. Smyrna won the 2015 and 2016 state Division I football titles at adjacent Delaware Stadium.
Repelling that Caravel rally, and then springing out of it, was as impressive as anything Smyrna (22-2) did Saturday while winning its the 18th game in a row in front of 3,104.
“We just stayed the course,” Smyrna coach Andrew Mears said. “It got a little 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 outside of who we are as a team.”
The Eagles didn’t get flustered and, for that reason, things didn’t unravel. It was no small task.
“I think it just starts with some of our guys have been in tough spots already,” Mears added. “From the conference championship to Slam Dunk to the Beach to previous games before. They knew in the game of basketball there’s going to be runs, there’s going to be moments for both teams. But then there are going to be opportunities to weather the storm and finish it out. I feel like a few of our guys were just waiting for that moment and took advantage.”
No. 19-seeded Caravel was trying to continue to its run of upsets and was again led by Parker, a junior who had team highs of 26 points and six rebounds. With him and the Smyrna trio of Garnett, a sophomore, and juniors Matthews and Nwankwo, a Division I college assistant coach observing courtside wondered if a DIAA state final had ever featured four Division I prospects before.
“They started making plays,” Matthews said, “but at the end, I feel like we switched to a little bit of a zone there and you could tell they weren’t really expecting that and it helped out a lot.”
Garnett had 28 points and 11 rebounds. Matthews supplied 16 points, 10 in the fourth quarter. Garnett, Matthews and Nwankwo scored Smyrna’s final 46 points.
More importantly, they helped steer the Eagles through the game’s rough patch and land them a state title.
“Ultimately, our guys just made a few plays down at the end that just kept it in our hands,” Mears said.
Contact Kevin Tresolini at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @kevintresolini.