You could argue forever about the Washington area’s all-time best high school team or player.
The best-ever head-to-head matchup? There shouldn’t be much debate about that.
I’ve researched decades and decades of local high school basketball history and for my money, the best individual matchup came in a game played 40 years ago this week.
On Feb. 1, 1976, DeMatha forward Charles “Hawkeye” Whitney and Mackin guard Anthony “Jo Jo” Hunter put on show that was both stunning and spectacular.
Both were first-team All-Met selection during that season of ’76; both were the top players on outstanding teams as well. Whitney averged 23 points per game in leading DeMatha to a 24-3 record and a No. 3 ranking in the final area poll. Meanwhile, Hunter averaged an area-best 28 points per game as the Trojans finished 23-7 and No. 4 in the area.
And both were at their absolute best on that cold February night 40 years ago. A DeMatha-Mackin game was always a huge draw in those days. With that in mind, the game had been moved to the gymnasium at St. John’s to accommodate the big crowd.
That turned out to be a good decision. The St. John’s gym holds about 1,700 fans. Newspaper accounts of the game listed the crowd that night at 2,200. Where was the fire marhsall? He was probably at the game, like everybody else.
But the crowd figure wasn’t the story. The numbers that Whitney and Hunter put up that night was what everyone remembers.
Even though the two big stars didn’t guard each other – Whitney was a forward, Hunter a guard – they were clearly the focal point. For most of the night, the other eight players on the floor were rendered supefluous.
Whitney, who could and did score inside and out, pumped in a game-high 41 points, just managing to lead the Stags to an 84-82 overtime victory.
Hunter, equally brilliant in a losing cause, reponded with 38 points of his own on an assortment of long jumpers (this was a decade ahead of the 3-point line) and lightning-quick drives to the basket.
Clearly, the two of them were playing on a different level – and neither was unduly selfish or reckless during their 32-minute showcase. Whitney connected on 17 of 25 shots grabbed 14 rebounds and even found time to hand out four assists. Sort of makes you wonder what the rest of the Stags were doing that night.
Hunter countered with a 17-for-31 shooting performance. He also filled up the stat sheet, adding five rebounds and seven assists.
“There’s no question those two put on one of the finest performances I’ve ever seen,” DeMaha coaching legend Morgan Wootten said afterward.
The back-and-forth between the two decorated high school stars went on all night. Whitney scored nine points in the first quarter, after which the Stags held a 23-18 lead. Hunter responded with a dozen in the second as Mackin cut its deficit at halftime to 39-38.
Hunter stayed hot after the break, too, scoring 10 points during a frantic 90-second span to start the third period. After three quarters, the Trojans had taken the lead at 62-60.
Then it was Whitney’s turn to shine. He scored seven points in the first three minutes of the fourth to put DeMatha up by six. But Hunter came right back later in the quarter with a pair of baskets within 30 seconds to tie the game at 76 with 30 seconds left.
After DeMatha’s Tony Ellis missed a free throw with 22 seconds left, Mackin rebounded and had a chance to win at the end of regulation. But a turnover ended any chance to decide the game in just four quarters.
Whitney took over from there, scoring six points in the extra session to settle the epic contest.
Both he and Hunter had given their all. Whitney had been suffering from the flu and was so weak that he missed four practices leading up to the game and needed help to get to the bathroom while home sick.
Hunter, though healthy, was just as spent. He sat on a bench in the Mackin locker room, his head down, and couldn’t summon the energy to get dressed until his teammates had showered and left.
As soon as the game ended, Wootten rushed up to Hunter, hugged him and said, “Jo Jo, there’s nobody beter than you.”
Except, perhaps, Hawkeye Whitney.