By Jim McElhatton (Photo/Sawyer McElhatton)
Bishop Ireton doesn’t boast one of the top basketball teams of the famed Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, but the Cardinals have been playing like they belong among the elite.
On Friday night, Ireton lost by just two points to conference leader Bishop O’Connell, and the team had another solid showing Tuesday night against Paul VI, which is ranked second. That they came so close in both games speaks volumes to the Cardinals’ tenacity.
“The league is extraordinary as usual,” Ireton head coach Neil Berkman said after a Sunday road win against McNamara. “There are four really, really good teams, and the rest of the league is good as well. … You have to bring your ‘A’ game every night.”
The McNamara win brought Ireton’s overall record to 13-6 and 4-5 in conference. Between the near upsets over O’Connell and Paul VI, Ireton had a huge first-quarter run against McNamara and then hit a crucial long jumper — from an unlikely source — to keep the game from slipping away.
“It’s very exciting to watch four seniors blossom,” Berkman said, reflecting on the season so far. “They’ve stuck with our program. They’ve matured. They’ve improved. And it’s all really coming to fruition.”
But on this senior-led team, Sunday’s game hinged on a shot made by a freshman.
Ireton had jumped out to an early 15-4 lead. But by halfway through the second quarter, McNamara — after a steal and easy layup — came back to within two points despite the seemingly insurmountable 15-2 first-quarter run by the Cardinals.
Up just 28-26, the visiting Cardinals didn’t panic. Senior Dan Noe dribbled up the court and — from the top of the key — could see McNamara had two men guarding Ireton’s big man, 6-foot-9 Jamie Senft, near the basket.
So Noe sent a quick pass to freshman Michael Everett. With McNamara giving Senft so much attention down low, the freshman six-footer was left all alone just beyond the arc.
Without hesitation, Everett took the shot — a perfect swish — and the ref raised both arms, signaling a made 3-pointer.
McNamara was never quite the same from then on.
On the next possession, McNamara turned the ball over. And Senft was fouled on the ensuing play, hitting both free throws afterward.
Then, adding to the home team’s frustration, McNamara turned the ball over yet again on a travel call.
Ireton pulled away, 33-26. By halftime, the Cardinals were up by a dozen.
“Each one of us is a part of the offense and what we do,” said Noe, who scored 23 points and will play at Navy next year. “When one guy’s not going, the others pick it up.”
Noe scored eight points in the final quarter. Ty Quarles scored 14 points, while Senft’s presence in the lane didn’t give McNamara many easy looks at the basket.
The senior nucleus consists of Noe and Senft — who will play for Army — as well as Quarrels and Pat Moseh, both of whom have Division II offers, according to Berkman.
“They’re all scholarship players,” the coach said. “They’re all unselfish.”
Moseh said he transferred to Ireton from Lee High School as a sophomore. He believes the league play has helped his game.
“You’re facing future Division I guys every night,” he said. “That’s definitely helped me.”
Senft said neither he nor his teammates took more than a week or two off preparing for the season, whether it was hitting the weight room in the offseason or playing AAU ball over the summer.
Conference powerhouse teams haven’t had an easy time with Ireton this year, even if the Cardinals find themselves in the middle of the pack.
The Cardinals played DeMatha close earlier this year. On Friday, with 23 points from Noe and 19 from Moseh, Ireton put a scare into top-ranked O’Connell, but ultimately lost 63-61 in an away game in Arlington. On Tuesday night, Ireton lost yet another close one, 56-52, this time against second-ranked Paul VI.