Guards lead St. Mary’s past bigger foe
Just minutes after winning the first state basketball title in St. Mary’s history, head coach Jose Caraballo laid out his plans for even bigger goals next season.
“We wanted to take care of business in Division IV, and we did that,” Caraballo said, a huge smile on his face. “Next year we move up to Division I and see if we can win that.”
The coach’s confidence was brimming over, and with good reason: his Panthers had just beaten Southern Section champ Crossroads, 76-62, in a remarkably easy win. Caraballo’s talented backcourt of DaShawn Freeman and John Sharper dominated the action, combining for 37 points, 11 steals, six rebounds and five assists, carrying their team past the bigger Roadrunners.
“I personally think my backcourt’s the best in the state. They give me everything,” Caraballo said of his guards, who also play together during summer. “They’re born leaders, and they know each other very, very well.”
Crossroads came into the game looking to take advantage of their most obvious asset: center Isaiah Fox. The 6-foot-10 senior will play for Arizona next season, but first he wanted to deliver a third state championship to his school. Fox did his part, scoring a game-high 30 points and grabbing 21 rebounds. He drew numerous fouls on the Panthers shooting 14-of-18 from the charity stripe, and was largely responsible for three St. Mary’s players fouling out in the fourth quarter.
“I thought there were more fouls out there than they called, but I was hitting my free throws, so it wasn’t really a problem,” Fox said after the game.
Fox’s coach, Daryl Roper, said he thought the officials didn’t call the game equally.
“It’s the inconsistency of the calls that bothers me,” Roper said. “He just happens to be overpowering, and the refs seem to think the fouls don’t affect him.”
But Fox’s teammates weren’t up to the championship task, as forward Jordan Rush was the only other Crossroads player to score in double figures with 10 points. The Roadrunners committed 28 turnovers in the face of the St. Mary’s defensive pressure, including eight by Fox, and shot just 37 percent from the floor.
The Panthers, on the other hand, got balanced scoring with 20 from Freeman, 17 from Sharper, and 14 from forward Chase Moore, who also pulled down 12 rebounds. They also got key offensive contributions from reserve guards Matt Straus and Terrence Boyd.
The Panthers were clearly the aggressors in the game, as they have been all season. Caraballo has his squad pressing non-stop on defense, and he counts on their superior quickness and hustle to get them through rough patches.
“The kids played so hard. It’s all about their heart, their will, their desire,” Caraballo said. “They just left everything out on the floor.”
Freeman, the team’s leader, agreed with his coach.
“We worked hard, hustled, got every loose ball,” Freeman said. “Maybe we just wanted it a little more than they did.”
The Panthers started slowly, and the teams were tied at 14-14 after the first quarter. But St. Mary’s got a kick-start from Straus, who led a 10-point run that put them up for good. First he drove the lane and pump-faked the Crossroads big men out of their shoes, spinning for an easy layup. A minute later, he hit an open 3-pointer, which Moore followed with a hook shot over Fox for a 26-17 Panther lead.
Fox brought his team back to within two points with a bunch of free throws, but Freeman stole an inbounds pass with just seconds left and spun past Rush for a layup at the buzzer for a 31-27 halftime lead.
The second half was more of the same, as the Panther guards doubled down on Fox whenever he got the ball, stripping him several times. Freeman continued to penetrate with impunity, scoring nine points on layups and free throws, and Boyd added six points as the Panthers took a 54-41 lead.
“They started slowing down on defense, and that’s when we started running,” Freeman said. “We got to them in the second half, and that’s how we won the game.”
The Roadrunners never got closer than 13 points in the final period, and all that was left was a meltdown by Fox. The big man took umbrage at an intentional foul call, ranting at the officials and earning a technical foul, which put him on the bench for the rest of the game.
The Panthers had a big dog-pile in the middle of the floor after the game, but once they calmed down, the players started talking about next year’s goals. The team loses just one starter, defensive specialist Jeremiah Fielder, and should be among the state’s top teams next year.
“I think we’ve got a really good chance. Most everybody’s coming back, and we have the heart to win at the next level,” Sharper said.
“We’re going to do the same thing we did this year,” Freeman said. “Nobody even picked us to win our league, and look what we did. We just take it as motivation.”