St. John’s: Grateful and Unbeaten!

St. John’s (Washington, D.C.) captures the Torrey Pines Holiday Tournament National Division title with a hard-fought victory over St. Augustine (San Diego, Calif.) and will return to the East Coast unbeaten heading into 2023. St. John’s has plenty of incentive and a hard road in front of it in conference play. FAB 50 title contenders Duncanville (Texas) and Harvard-Westlake (North Hollywood, Calif.) are upset in West Coast tournament championship games.

Teams from the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC) were among the first to test their wares against quality teams from around the country. DeMatha Catholic (Hyattsville, Md.) was nationally known in the 1970s for playing in high-level tournaments and other teams followed suit as rankings (both player and team) made high school basketball’s best players and teams national commodities.

It’s taken for granted that teams can travel the country to play in holiday events, but with reliable airline travel in peril during this holiday season, the out-of-area teams participating at the Torrey Pines Holiday Classic were more than grateful to make it and play four quality opponents. For FAB 50 No. 18 St. John’s (Washington, D.C.), making it to Southern California, in particular scenic Del Mar, Calif., was a blessing and being able to showcase their fine team was a treat for local fans. The Cadets came to the event unbeaten and the long trip back to the nation’s capital was made easier when St. John’s came up with crucial defensive stops down the stretch to record a 71-65 National Division title game victory over local club St. Augustine (San Diego, Calif.), the best team from San Diego County.

The contest was in the balance with 1:21 to go with St. John’s leading 63-60 when sophomore (2025) guard Pete Newman attempted a runner in the lane that was way off target. But St. John’s forward Donnie Freeman grabbed the offensive rebound, and in one motion, banked the ball in while being fouled for a huge conventional 3-point play that he converted. On St. Augustine’s next possession, the Cadets played great defense on the perimeter with Saints looking for a quality shot. Saints ended up with a tough 3-pointer and the ball went out of bounds on the rebound scrum.

That one possession summed up the Cadets’ overall performance and their approach to the game: good team defense and big shots on the offensive end. The stat line of Freeman, a 6-foot-9 junior and one of the better 2024 forward prospects in the country, displayed his dominance and the difference in the game against a smaller club with equal firepower on the perimeter. Freeman finished with 18 points, 14 rebounds and a handful of crucial blocks when Saints offensive players drove the lane or grabbed an offensive rebound. He was named the Nick Herrmann National Division MVP.

“With the game on the line like that, I want to make winning plays,” Freeman said. “It comes down to making winning plays.”

Harvard-bound Malik Mack, a 6-foot-2 2023 point guard, added 19 points for a St. John’s club that arrived in San Diego on Christmas Day. Six-foot-2 2024 guard Daquan Davis finished with 16 points. Davis was named all-tournament and was the leading scorer in the Cadets’ four-games.

Jurian Dixon, a 6-foot-4 power guard and easily one of the best unsigned senior (2023) prospects on the West Coast, finished with 23 points for St. Augustine (12-3). Jaden Matingou, a 6-foot-2 2023 guard, added 14 points while Arizona Christian-bound 6-foot-5 forward Derrius Carter-Hollinger did the dirty work on the interior and finished with 13 points. Dixon and Carter-Hollinger were all-tourney selections for coach Mike Haupt’s club.

St. John’s coach Patrick Behan was glad to make the decision to leave a day early for the tournament and stated the hardest part of the trip out was convincing the Cadets’ parents to leave on Christmas Day evening. The team’s return trip will obviously be a bit smoother with a tournament title in tow, but the Cadets’ work has just begun.

Not only do they play in traditionally the toughest conference in the country, which includes current FAB 50 No. 1 Paul VI (Fairfax, Va.), which has lost a game since our last rankings update on December 12, and 11-0 and No. 23 Gonzaga (Washington, D.C.), it is trying to keep its focus knowing its head coach is dealing with something much bigger than a high school basketball game.

Behan was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, in early summer 2022 at age 34. The news of Behan’s ALS obviously hit the St. John’s and greater DMV basketball community hard. Basketball, and the relationships Behan has forged through the game, is now a rallying point around his fight with the disease.

On January 3, St. John’s will host the Behan Strong Invitational, a three-game showcase with all proceeds from the event going to support Behan in his ALS fight. St. John’s will take on current FAB 50 No. 3 IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.). Paul VI will take on Ryken (Leonardtown, Md.) and Jackson-Reed (Washington, D.C.) faces Bullis (Potomac, Md.).

After Friday’s title-game victory in San Diego, Behan explained just what St. John’s basketball and the players on the team mean to him while he battles ALS.

“I wake up with alot of injections, pills and other things, but the best medicine is to be with the fellas in the gym,” Behan said. “Winning certainly helps.

“As far as the event (on the 3rd), it’s awesome to be playing with programs and coaches I’ve been attached to. They are great friends.”

“We want to make it as stress-less as possible for coach, so winning is part of that,” Freeman said.

St. John’s will head into the Behan Strong Invitational 12-0. Behan’s situation and just the fact the tournament’s five 16-team brackets were able to be played without any major hitches puts things in perspective.

For out-of-area teams, just showing up and being able to play at the Torrey Pines Holiday Classic was an ordeal. In particular the plight of National Division consolation champ O’Dea (Seattle, Wash.) deserves mention. The team’s flight to the event was cancelled. So the Fightin’ Irish took a 20-hour bus ride so they could show up and participate. Along the way, the bus dropped off the team at Auburn (Wash.) at The Classic at Damien (an hour and a half north of Torrey Pines High School on Interstate 5). O’Dea arrived 30 minutes before its first round game with Dougherty Valley (San Ramon, Calif.). After that 70-58 setback, O’Dea reeled off three consecutive wins and was visibly pleased to take home the consolation title on Friday afternoon.

St. John’s become the second WCAC club to win the prestigious national division crown. The first WCAC club to win the Holiday Classic title was DeMatha Catholic (Hyattsville, Md.) in 2011 when it took down Windward (Los Angeles). The Stags finished No. 13 in the final 2011-12 FAB 50. The Cadets advanced to the title game of this tournament in 2016, falling to Foothills Christian (El Cajon, Calif.) and the hot hand of future NBA guard Jaylen Hands. The following year, WCAC club Bishop O’Connell (Arlington, Va.) lost in the title game to Archbishop Stepinac (White Plains, N.Y.).

St. John’s advanced to this year’s Holiday Classic title game with a 73-60 semifinal victory over Eastside Catholic (Sammamish, Wash.). The Cadets jumped out to a 34-11 lead after one quarter and were in control throughout. Davis led the way with 23 points. It was also Behan’s 100th career victory.

Saints advanced to the title game with a 62-58 victory over Dougherty Valley, a club that just wouldn’t go away and was a fan favorite throughout the event. Dougherty Valley had a chance to tie with a 3-pointer with under 30 seconds remaining, but San Francisco-bound guard Ryan Beasley couldn’t find the mark. Dixon led Saints with 23 points.

Dougherty Valley’s Connor Sevilla, a 6-foot 2023 guard who had a terrific tournament, finished with 24 points in a losing effort. In the third place game, Dougherty Valley defeated Eastside Catholic, 75-68, as Beasley had some clutch baskets and finished with 34 points. In his four tournament games, the 5-foot-11 Beasley netted 28.5 ppg. Hands netted 180 points (36 ppg) in five tournament games in 2016.

At The Classic at Damien in La Verne, Calif., FAB 50 No. 13 Harvard-Westlake took on Liberty (Henderson, Nev.) and its top-rated junior point guard, Dedan Thomas Jr., in the Platinum Division title game. The Wolverines dropped their first game of the season, 59-56, to fall to 16-1 to a club that came into the title game with a 7-5 record. Thomas sank two free throws with nine seconds remaining to ice the game, while backcourt running mate Angelo Kambala, a 6-foot Utah Tech commit, finished with 23 points and was named The Classic at Damien MVP.

In the semifinals, Liberty avenged an earlier loss to Rancho Christian (Temecula, Calif.) with a 63-60 victory. The Minutemen lost to Rancho Christian, 69-65, at home on the eve of the Tarkanian Classic, where they finished with a 2-2 mark. Thomas scored 10 of his 20 points in the fourth period while Kambala contributed 17.

Another FAB 50 title contender, No. 6 Duncanville (Texas), also lost its first game of the season on Friday, when the Panthers fell to unranked West Linn (Ore.), 62-50, in the title game of the Les Schwab Invitational at Liberty High School (Hillsboro, Ore.). Oregon-bound guard Jackson Shelstad scored 30 points for West Linn after scoring 38 points in a 86-69 semifinal victory over Sierra Canyon (Chatsworth, Calif.). Shelstad averaged 33 ppg at the LSI.

Duncanville entered the West Linn game 15-0 and riding a 35-game, on-court winning streak dating back to exactly the same day (December 30) in 2021 when the Panthers lost to Richardson (Texas) in the title game of the Whataburger Tournament.

With Paul VI, Duncanville and Harvard-Westlake, among others, going down over the holiday tournament season, who deserves to be FAB No. 1 now?

Ronnie Flores is the national Grassroots editor of Ballislife.com. He can be reached at [email protected]. Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter: @RonMFlores

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