It was a cold winter morning in December of 1969. Schools were on break, with teachers and coaches like DeMatha’s Morgan Wootten happy for a respite from their responsibilities.
This particular morning, Wootten heard a knock on the door of his Hyattsville home. He went to answer it and discovered ninth-grader Adrian Dantley standing on his doorstep. Dantley, then an up-and-coming star for the Stags, wanted to borrow the keys to the DeMatha gym, so he could squeeze in a workout.
For years, a string of Notre Dame football coaches has tried to duplicate the sustained success of the program’s glory days.
Notre Dame’s basketball program, meanwhile, doesn’t have that problem.
Mike Brey has seen to that.
The Bethesda native and former DeMatha point guard, now in his 18th season as head coach of the Irish, became the all-time winningest coach in Notre Dame basketball history on Wednesday night, thanks to an 88-58 victory over North Carolina State. That triumph gave him 394 victories at Notre Dame, pushing him past the 393 wins accumulated by Richard “Digger” Phelps, who coached at the school from 1971-91.
In a nice gesture, Phelps was even on hand in South Bend the other night to hand Brey the game ball after the final buzzer.
Both were high school standouts, with Williams playing on Crossland HS team that reached the Class AA state basketball finals three years in a row (1986-88). Ferry, of course, played at storied DeMatha Catholic HS, where the team he played on in his junior year (1983-84) wound up 29-2 and ranked No. 1 nationally by USA Today.
By 1967, legendary coach Morgan Wootten had firmly established DeMatha as the premier high school basketball program in the Washington area.
Taking over the top spot after the Archbishop Carroll dynasty had run its course, the Stags reigned as the best team in the area for the next half-dozen years, and even garnered national attention following their upset of New York’s Power Memorial and superstar Lew Alcindor in 1965.
Throughout that period, league rival Mackin also established itself as one of the best programs around. During a five-season run, from 1961-66, the Trojans – then coached by Paul Furlong – ran up a record of 133-33.
That would be an admirable showing against any level of competition. It was even more impressive considering now-closed Mackin competed in the Washington Catholic League against the likes of DeMatha, Carroll and St. John’s. Then, as now, the league featured some of the best high school basketball around.
But as good as Mackin was during that stretch, it could never unseat DeMatha. The Stags won the league title every year from 1961-66 and would win it again every year from 1968-76.
But 50 years ago this week, Mackin was finally able to knock DeMatha from the top of the league standings and the top of the local high school basketball rankings.
DeMatha didn’t lose often. On the rare occasions the Stags did lose, it took an oustanding player, or team, or circumstance to beat them.
In the first week of March in 1967, Mackin had at least two of the three factors in their favor. Star guard Autin Carr scored 21 points (including the 2,000th of his pep career) as Mackin downed DeMatha, 54-48, on the night of March 3, 1967.
It was, by all accounts, the biggest regular-season high school game of the year, and mabe the biggest locally since the DeMatha-Power clash two years before. To accommodate the huge crowd expected, the game was moved to Cole Field House at the University of Maryland, where a throng of 8,500 gathered to watch the show.
They saw a classic. DeMatha led by nine (16-7) early in the game, but the margin remained within three points for much of the game, with neither team able to gain much of an edge. Mackin’s Richie Ford hit a basket early in the fourth quarter to give the Trojans the lead for good at 42-41. The previous three baskets in the game resulted in the lead switching hands – that’s how close it was.
Carr, who had been hot early, but quiet in the middle, delivered at the end. He sank six consecutive free throws in the last two minutes to clinch the game, the league titles and the area’s No.1 ranking for the Trojans.
Carr was as prolific a scorer as any local high school has ever produced. He went on to an All-American career at Notre Dame and was a first-round draft choice in the NBA. But he had lots of help, too. Mackin had a great distributor and defensive player at the point in Sterling Savoy, a talented big man in 6-foot-8 Garland Williams, and another reliable offensive option in Richie Ford. Carr and Williams earned All-Met recognition in the Washington Star for the 1966-67 season; Carr and Savoy were picked for the Washington Post squad. Ford was chosen for All-Met honors the next season.
It had been a long time coming for Mackin. The Trojans had won the first regular-season game between the two powerful teams a little more than a month before. Carr scored 21 points in that first triumph, including a key three-point play with 2:10 left, to lead Mackin to a 55-49 victory over 2,500 fans at Fort Myer across the river in Virginia.
That victory was Mackin’s first over DeMatha in 10 years. The league title was the school’s first – and only – as a member of the Catholic League/Metro Conference. And, it was the only time DeMatha failed to win the crown in that ultra-competitive league between 1961 and 1976.
After Mackin’s second victory over the Stags in ‘67, Furlong made so secret about what his focus had been that season – and in fact his entire coaching career at Mackin up to that point.
“Trying to reach the level Morgan (Wootten) hs established at DeMatha has helped us,” he said. “DeMatha has pride – they’ve had it for a long time – and now we have it.”
Don’t look now, but Mike Brey’s Notre Dame basketball team sits atop what may be the best conference in college basketball.
Nobody should be surprised by this.
It’s the sort of thing the former DeMatha point guard/assistant coach has been doing for a decade and half, ever since he took over the basketball fortunes of the Irish.
Yet somehow – perhaps because of the school’s geographic isolation from its rivals in the Big East and now the Atlantic Coast Conference – Brey’s accomplishments seem to be perpetually overlooked.
The new college basketball season is still taking shape. As a result, it’s difficult to draw many definitive conclusions based on what’s happened so far. After all, preseason No.1 Duke has already lost once; perennial power Michigan State has lost three times.
One of the few certainties in this still-young season is this: Upper Marlboro native and DeMatha grad Markelle Fultz is playing as well as any freshman in the country. Through the first five games of his college career at the University of Washington, Fultz is averaging 25.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game.
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.”
Congratulations go out to DeMatha’s Markelle Fultz and Paul VI’s V.J. King, who were recently named to the McDonald’s All-America team. This year marks the first time in nine yars that the Washington area has had two representatives on the prestigious squad.
The teams Fultz and King play for are doing well this year, too. DeMatha is 16-3 and ranked No. 1 this week, although that should change after the Stags’ loss to league rival Gonzaga. Paul VI is a more modest 12-7 and ranked 18th.
Both players – along with standout St. John’s guard Anthony Cowan – are ranked among the ESPN’s top 100 high school prospects in that latest rankings. Fultz is No. 10, King is No. 26 and the Maryland-bound Cowan is No. 69.
These numbers once again point up the oustanding caliber of basketball played in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, the private school league that includes the area’s top three teams, according to the Washington Post (DeMatha, St. John’s and Gonzaga), as well as four of the top nine overall.
Fans of the WCAC can rightfully claim their league as one of the best – if not the best – in the county, year in and year out.
That’s all well and good. But does it bother anybody – other than me – that more and more, the private schools are the only ones that really matter during high school basketball season?
It’s fair to say that DeMatha basketball standout Markelle Fultz is on the fast track.
Fultz, a 6-foot-5 guard, was a virtual unknown at the beginning of last summer. He’d failed to make the DeMatha varsity as a sophomore and wound up playing for the Stags’ junior varsity squad in 2013-14.
With a breakout summer last year, he put himself on everyone’s list of topflight college basketball prospects. He did nothing to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm during this past regular season, leading another excellent DeMatha team in scoring with a 16.5-point average. Fulz also averaged more than seven rebounds and four assists per game. He was named the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference’s Player of the Year, a rare honor for a non-senior.