They lined up waiting their turn, camera phones in hand, waiting to snap a picture with No. 11 with the flat top. One by one, Demarcus Miller smiled and put a long arm around each friend from his hometown.
They had all squeezed into Iona Prep’s packed gym Friday night to watch the Stepinac sophomore. Each member of the entourage left with more than a photo. They also had a snapshot from his varsity arrival.
The 6-foot-1 swingman and his teammates emerged victorious, 70-64, from an entertaining duel between two of the area’s top underclassmen. Miller had 20 points to Iona Prep sophomore Matt Ryan’s 21, but the Crusaders earned the first bragging rights as their rivalry against Iona Prep was renewed after a one-year hiatus.
“No. 11, I thought he was the difference in the game,” Gaels coach Vic Quirolo said.
With the 6-foot-6 Ryan hot from deep, Miller came off the bench midway through the first quarter and provided a spark. He checked Ryan at times and shot 8 for 11 from the field, grabbed five rebounds and had three steals to piggyback last week’s 16-point performance against league favorite Cardinal Hayes.
Miller said he was fueled by the competition posed by Ryan, who finished with eight rebounds and finished 5 for 12 from 3.
“We’ve played against each other since fifth grade. It was a big challenge because I know if you’re not contesting his 3-point shot, it’s going down every time,” Miller said. “I love going against good competition because it makes me better as a player.”
A late Ryan 3 cut Iona Prep’s deficit to 33-30 at halftime, but Stepinac’s speed and quickness forced 22 turnovers, allowing it to overcome an early rebound deficit as well as missed layups and free throws. By contrast, the Crusaders (7-1) committed just eight. Guards Josh James (17 points) and Naim Thomas (12 points) did much of the ball-handling.
Senior Brandon Williams posted 17 points for Iona Prep and the team’s other key returnee, junior Isiah Ice, added 15.
“Some of their guys were sophomores on varsity a couple years ago,” Quirolo said. “Last year they played in the AA. They’re just a little more seasoned than us. You could tell.”
The Gaels (5-3), of course, moved up to the CHSAA’s “AA” division, putting Stepinac back on the schedule for a home-and-home series. Like many of their previous meetings, this was decided in the final minutes. The Crusaders misfired from the line, but executed enough down the stretch to win.
“Every year I look forward to playing them,” James said. “Last year, I was disappointed we didn’t, but this year I was really looking forward to it. I couldn’t wait for this day.”