By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)
The task for the Episcopal boys basketball team Tuesday night was simple: beat St. Albans and keep pace with Bullis atop the Interscholastic Athletic Conference ahead of the teams’ clash in the regular season finale Saturday night. The Maroon did just that, taking care of business with a 72-51 victory.
Meanwhile, Bullis beat fellow IAC rivals St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes 54-43 on Tuesday, meaning Saturday’s game will have added significance, as both Episcopal and the Bulldogs hold 7-2 records in conference play and are tied for first in the standings.
The upcoming matchup now serves as a regular-season championship game, just a week after the teams faced each other for the first time on February 6, a game that Episcopal lost 79-64 in its home gym. The recent snowstorm caused the rescheduling of some games, but the Maroon are now in line to secure their second straight IAC title.
“When you first look at a schedule and say, ‘Oh, we have to play a team twice within seven days,’ it’s not always what a coach wants, because you want more time to prepare, recover and move on to other teams in the league,” said Episcopal head coach Jim Fitzpatrick. “However, in this situation where we’re coming off a loss against them, now I’m excited that we get another opportunity to play them within seven days.”
After last week’s loss, it was imperative for the Maroon to get back on track against St. Albans, especially as the team honored its seven seniors on Senior Night. And the home side did just that, jumping out to a 40-22 lead at halftime thanks to some strong 3-point shooting from guards Nick Reed, Xavier Johnson and George Mawanda-Kalema. Then, when the Bulldogs tried to adjust their defense, forwards Edwin Ebube and Zach Pfaffenberger took advantage with some strong post play under the hoop.
The home side also generated a number of buckets from its transition offense, which Fitzpatrick said was suited to his team’s preference to play an up-tempo style of basketball.
“One way to increase the number of possessions and shots is to really drive the ball up the floor; plus, I think the kids enjoy playing that way,” he said. “What we need to do a better job of is as the game wears on and we build a lead, then you have to learn about picking your spots, when you push the ball in transition and when you sit down and really run half-court offense and try and get the ball in the paint.”
The Maroon continued to build that lead, but then had to weather something of a storm from the visiting Bulldogs, who went on a 7-0 run late in the third quarter to cut the deficit to 53-38 and gather some much-needed momentum.
But Episcopal pulled away again in the fourth, thanks in large part to some solid free-throw shooting as St. Albans racked up fouls in an attempt to get the ball back. Ebube led the way for the hosts with 16 points and 9 rebounds, while Johnson, Mawenda-Kalema and Reed had 11, 13 and 10 points, respectively.
“I think we all came together, played as a team, played hard and made a statement that the team that was playing on Saturday [against Bullis] wasn’t the team that we really are,” Ebube said.
The win means the Maroon improves to 19-4 overall, with the game against Bullis serving as a prelude to postseason play in both the IAC and the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association tournaments. In VISAA’s latest weekly poll released early Tuesday, Episcopal was ranked No. 2, behind only Fairfax powerhouse Paul VI.
A bigger challenge awaits Saturday, as the Maroon travels to Potomac, Md. to face the Bulldogs, who hold a 16-7 record overall but have looked very strong in the IAC. Fitzpatrick said a combination of foul trouble and fatigue contributed to Episcopal’s defeat last time out, which snapped a six-game winning streak.
The two teams are very close in terms of ability, so the margins could be very fine as both strive to win the regular-season conference title.
“They like to push the ball up-tempo and they’ve got athletes like we do,” Ebube said. “I guess it’s just us being able to play together as a team, and who’s the better team, not who has the better individual performances.”
“Quite honestly, we’ve got to stay out of foul trouble, I’ve got to keep my main five guys on the floor as much as I can,” Fitzpatrick said. “Then our kids have to be willing to make plays, and I think that’s the fun part of basketball. I don’t want them to be afraid to make plays both offensively and defensively. Bullis has a guard-oriented attack and a wing-oriented attack, and we’re going to have to sit down and stop them. I think if our defense improves, we will have a chance.”