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DeMatha easily downs Cardozo
(Published March 20, 2006)

By MICHAEL HOFFMAN
Special to The Common Denominator

Spectators watching the DeMatha Stags play their high-octane brand of basketball at the city championship game may have had to do a double take to convince themselves that what they were watching really was a high school team. For although the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association champion Cardozo Clerks mustered a solid effort, they still could not compensate for the sheer size and athleticism of the Stags, as DeMatha won the city title for the second consecutive year, by a margin of 87-57, in a repeat of last year’s matchup.

As the game began March 14 at George Washington University’s Smith Center, it took nary a second for the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference champions to display their prolific attack. Four seconds after the opening tip, 6-foot-9 DeMatha junior center Jerai Grant tapped the tip-off directly to Austin Freeman for the layup down court.

Freeman would score early and often in the game’s opening stanza enroute to a 28-point game in which he would shoot a silky smooth 10 of 15 from the field and receive the MVP trophy.

Freeman’s skills were apparent early on, as in the first quarter he would cut to the basket and receive another assist from Grant for a layup. Later, he was fouled and made both free throws, while levitating for an alley-oop, to give DeMatha an early 8-2 lead.

While DeMatha’s offense clicked, its defense stayed aggressive. The Stags employed a full court press and on numerous occasions trapped and double-teamed speedy Cardozo guards Antonio Cooper and Eugene Huff, stifling any opportunity the Clerks might have had to organize a play.

Even when they didn’t trap, the Stags would affect Cardozo’s offensive flow merely with their height. Midway through the first quarter, Cooper received a pass near the right baseline and had an open shot at a layup attempt. The 5-foot-10 Cooper spotted the 6-foot-9 Grant and 6-foot-5 Freeman on the baseline opposite him and attempted a high arching bank shot that missed, instead of driving for the layup.

While Cardozo remained apprehensive on offense and had trouble breaking DeMatha’s full court trap, the Stags had little trouble scoring, finishing off the first quarter with a 21-9 lead.

The second quarter commenced and, still, Cardozo had no answers for Freeman. Freeman would hit three three-pointers in the second quarter and have 21 points by halftime. On most occasions Freeman would wait patiently as his team cycled the ball inside the paint and around the key, and he would receive the ball at the exact moment Cardozo would leave him unguarded, draining the open jumpshot. On other occasions Freeman would slash his way through the lane, elevating past defenders and changing his shot while in midair. Everything worked, and DeMatha coach Mike Jones was happy to green light any shot Freeman might take.

"He (Freeman) was feeling it tonight, and our guys knew that he was feeling it, so our guys got him the ball and he knocked shots down. That’s what a big-time player like him will do," Jones said.

Meanwhile, although they would be torched by Freeman and outscored 23-20 in the quarter, the second quarter would see Cardozo playing their best basket of the game. Cooper and Huff would begin noticing when DeMatha was trapping, and both reacted faster by pushing the ball up court, or by passing to an open teammate.

Most often, that open teammate would be senior forward Makei Slaughter-Thomas, and although he usually would be guarded by larger DeMatha defenders, he nevertheless scored on almost every opportunity he got down-low in the second, making all five jumpers.

On a potentially highlight reel worthy play, Slaughter-Thomas would drive in the lane and a couple steps before the basket, levitate over a larger opponent for what may have been a rim-rattling dunk if not for a foul. Although Slaughter-Thomas sank both free throws, his facial expression made it obvious that what he really wanted to do was put the exclamation point on his 16-point half by dunking the ball.

"I wish I would have made it -- I would have had it if I didn’t get fouled," Slaughter-Thomas said after the game.

Even Slaughter-Thomas’s second quarter heroics couldn’t stop DeMatha from holding a dominant 44-29 lead at the end of the first half. The second half would see more of the same, as DeMatha would coast for an 87-57 victory.

"We saw (Cardozo) had eight or nine players and we have a lot of players on our team, so we just ran them a lot to get them tired," Freeman said.

Indeed, while Freeman and his DeMatha teammates succeeded in wearing-out their opponents, Cardozo senior Cooper remained upbeat, describing how the Clerks "came together as a team" this year in winning their third consecutive DCIAA championship.

Slaughter-Thomas, also a senior, blissfully described his years going to school at Cardozo and playing for championship teams.

"Good team, three championships, a good education -- that’s about it," he said.

Copyright 2006 The Common Denominator