Winston Churchill High School boys basketball coach Matt Miller best summed up the ugly game between his Bulldogs and Wheaton on Friday night when he shook his head, put his palms to the ceiling and pondered: “It’s hard to say, was today a defensive battle or an offensive struggle?”
Maybe it was just a remarkably steadfast defensive effort from both squads that kept the Blue Division championship game at the Bobby Miller Bulldog Holiday Classic to a combined 77 points. Or maybe dreadful offensive execution was the reason behind Wheaton shooting an inexplicably low 11 field goals in the second half, or that Churchill shot just 33 percent from the field.
But, whether it be defensive prowess or offensive struggles, it was Churchill that escaped with a 40-37 victory and a third consecutive title defense of its own tournament.
“They found a way to win,” Miller said. “So we’re proud of our seniors, mostly, they found a way to dig in and handle adversity today.”
The most exciting point of the first half came at the buzzer, when Wheaton standout Tyron White, who had scored 23 points in the previous two games entering the night, split a double-team and pulled up from the 3-point line to put his Knights up 19-15.
Churchill’s Malik Harris, who was named to the all-tournament team afterwards, was the only other player on the court producing any kind of offensive output. He scored nine points in the first half on 4-of-4 shooting while chipping in a free throw, accounting for 60 percent of the Bulldogs’ points.
“I was just playing through the offense and running the offense,” Harris said. “Doing what I had to be doing.”
Now, it should be noted that, while it was clear that neither team’s offense was at its finest, Wheaton coach Sharief Hashim and Miller were also in a game of defensive chess. Miller had his Bulldogs running a different defensive set every time Wheaton came down the court, throwing the Knights’ offense haywire and forcing a number of turnovers. Hashim was on a similar agenda, deploying a garden variety of defenses that did its part in limiting the amount of quality looks for the Bulldogs.
“We’re physical, we defend,” Hashim said. “I’ve been pleased with that, that’s something we did last year. We didn’t score many points so we had to defend and that’s something we do. Churchill missed some shots but we gave ourselves a chance to win.”
So with a minute remaining, it was Wheaton up by four, which seemed to be a pretty safe lead considering the trouble Churchill had been having on the offensive end. But then Harris drove right and the defense collapsed, leaving junior guard Dylan Mervis unguarded.
Mervis buried the only shot he would take all game — and the only 3-pointer made by Churchill — and the lead was cut to one.
“I wasn’t sure,” Mervis said. “But I just kind of let it go.”
Wheaton guard Langston Payne, who was also named All-Tournament, missed both ends of a double-bonus opportunity — he finished 3 of 11 from the line — and Churchill took over with a little more than 30 seconds left.
It would be Mervis again who delivered. He took a pass at the left elbow and sold a pump fake that made the Wheaton defense jump, leaving Bryant Wheatley wide open under the basket for an easy layup.
Ibrahim Kallon would be called for a charge on Wheaton’s ensuing possession, Allen Njumbe buried two more free throws, and Churchill escaped with its fourth straight victory.
“Wheaton looks like a pretty good team to me,” Miller said. “They battled, they scrapped, they can shoot well, they’re athletic. We’re just happy to get a chance to play them.”
Churchill 40, Wheaton 37
Churchill (6-2) 6 9 11 14—40
Wheaton (5-3) 8 11 5 13—37
Churchill—Bryant Wheatley 12; Malik Harris 11; Allen Njumbe 6; Dominique Williams 4; Dylan Mervis 3; Jesse Locke 2; Bobby Arthur-Williams 2.
Wheaton—Tyron White 13; Langston Payne 10; Ibrahim Kallon 6; Alex Attia 4; Darius Eddings 2; Seydi Diop 2.