By Robert Bettmann
After struggling with Bishop Ireton’s zone defense, and dealing with early foul trouble, the St. John’s College High School boys basketball team stayed on a roll Friday night, wining its fourth game in row by a score of 48-40.
Three days prior, on Tuesday night, the Cadets topped Gonzaga at the buzzer, 49-47, and now have a 17–8 record with three games remaining before the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference tournament begins on Feb 21.
“We have to keep improving,” Cadets head coach Patrick Behan said. “We’ve had a good week. We beat Gonzaga on Tuesday and we beat Ireton today, so that’s two league wins, which is great and no easy task. Now we’ve got a few more to go and then we have to try and keep things right going into the playoffs.”
St. John’s started the game working its offense through senior forward Richard Njoku, who has committed to playing at the Naval Academy next year. However, Bishop Ireton’s zone defense disrupted that strategy and contributed to early foul trouble for Njoku, who checked out of the game after a second foul with 2:25 to go in the first quarter.
Bishop Ireton subsequently scored on a fast break following a missed jump shot by St. Johns to pull even at nine-all. When Ireton lost the ball out of bounds following a rebound, the Cadets called a timeout and inbounded with a set play that produced a clean three-pointer from junior Devon Dunn to make the score 12-9 at the end of the first.
Dunn shot well throughout and was the game’s leading scorer with 13 points.
“I felt like my three-point shot was coming to me throughout the game,” he said. “It started in the first quarter and just kept flowing.”
After Njoku checked out, St. John’s started to take more outside shots and struggled defensively. The Cardinals scored back-to-back fast break points – first by Darius Potts, and then Jordan Beckett – to take their first lead at 19-18. It was then back-and-forth for a bit as the Cadets’ Delonnie Hunt successfully took it to the rim to make the score 20-19, but the Cardinals’ Ariel Goddot answered with a three. On the next play Goddot had a block that led to a fast break and helped the Cardinals end the half on a hot streak with a 26-20 lead.
The outcome of the half had to be considered a surprise given not only the Cadets’ winning record, but also the Cardinals’ losing streak. The Cardinals had lost their previous seven games entering the contest and stood at 7-16. Nevertheless, their zone defense was extremely effective, and their offense tenacious.
The Cadets struggled to find passing lanes and uncontested shots, and the Cardinals first-half offense flowed from those defensive stops.
“We don’t usually play against zone, and that was good for us, to develop as a team,” said Njoku, who finished with 10 points. “Today there were a lot of things to work on. It wasn’t the way we wanted to start out the first half – we were a little lackadaisical – but toward the second half we got going.”
Got going they did.
Beckett started the second-half scoring with a jump shot to make the score 28-20, but after that the Cardinals did not score for the remainder of the quarter. During that time, the Cadets rattled off 17 straight points – including two threes by Dunn and a pair of buckets by Njoku and Tre Wood each. Following a St. John’s timeout with 22 seconds left, Ishmael Leggett put back an awkward, off-balance rebound to push the Cadets’ lead to 37-28.
Beckett again started the scoring in the fourth and ended the Cardinals’ drought, but by that time the ball seemed to be rolling downhill fast against Bishop Ireton.
Njoku was a focus of the Cadets’ offense in the fourth, but received help from Casey Morsell, who had two baskets and a big block, and freshman Devon Savage, who also poured in two baskets.
With less than a minute to play the score was 46-38, and Ireton pushed into a full-court press. The press did produce turnovers, but it was too little, too late, as the game wound down to a 48-40 final.
After the game, Cadets’ players and coaches were aware of the challenge they’d surmounted.
“[At the half] we knew we weren’t playing the best that we could,” Dunn said. “We knew that we had to be more aggressive on offense, to get through their zone, and to get into our zone. So we became more aggressive, got downhill, got the win.”
Behan added, “A lot of the guys helped in the victory, but I thought Devon Dunn made some big shots, got us going, and Devon Savage did a great job working the middle of the zone, rebounding, finishing inside.”