As the seconds ticked down DeMatha Catholic High School’s boys’ basketball season at American University on Tuesday night, a man in a gray polo walked directly behind the Stag bench, carrying the towering Washington Catholic Athletic Association championship trophy so tantalizingly close most of the players could have reached back and touched it. Yet, that is as close as the Stags will get to that coveted piece of hardware this season, just out of reach as Paul VI ran away with its second WCAC title in three years, beating DeMatha 56-37.

“I feel like we kind of ran into a perfect storm in that last half,” senior Brock Ruble said. “Everything they did worked out good for them. Everything we did didn’t work out for us. They just — I want to say perfect storm and you really got to give credit where credit is due. Paul VI played a great game.”

The sheer fact that the Stags appeared in the championship game just one year removed from its second losing season in the program’s history is somewhat remarkable in itself. With a young starting lineup including a junior (Terrell Allen), a sophomore (Joe Hampton) and the first freshman to start a WCAC title game in school history (D.J. Harvey), the Stags still beat everybody the conference had to offer — most notably the three other members of the Big Four this year in Paul VI, Bishop O’Connell and St. John’s College. Just not on Tuesday night.

Defense, said Ruble, is “what [Paul VI] does,” and it was the center of DeMatha’s problems all night. It took nearly 10 minutes for anybody not named Terrell Allen to score a point for the Stags, who nearly went the entire first quarter without making a field goal. By the time Hampton ended the scoring drought for the rest of the team, DeMatha was down 12-6 and would never tie or lead the game again.

But the game was never out of hand. Midway through the third quarter, it even had all the makings of a Stag comeback. With 4 minutes, 6 seconds remaining in the third, Paul VI standout forward Marcus Derrickson picked up his third foul and was taken out of the game. Three seconds later, fellow starter Josh Reaves picked up his third foul and he too found a spot on the bench. With two minutes before the fourth quarter, DeMatha drew a tenth team foul on the Panthers, meaning even if a Stag was fouled 90 feet from the basket, he would be shooting two. Paul VI, and coach Glenn Farello in particular, was in a precarious spot.

As the maxim goes, though, ‘Defense wins championships,’ and it did on Tuesday. Even with the considerable foul trouble, Paul VI made it through the quarter holding a 10-point lead. That swelled to 13, then 15, then 16, and suddenly the Panthers had gone from the ones backed into a corner to the ones throwing the punches. The counterpunch never came.

DeMatha made just two field goals the entire fourth quarter. For all that foul trouble they stuck the Panthers in, the Stags got to the line only four times.

“They played great defense and they frustrated the heck out of us,” DeMatha coach Mike Jones said. “They keyed a little on Corey and keyed a little on Joe, two of our scorers, but they were tough and we didn’t respond well to it. I can’t really sugarcoat it; my team knows how I feel. I love them to death but we got out-toughed tonight.”

Even in a time where gleaning positives is no easy task, Jones was quick to point out his team’s youth. If this season was any indicator, which it is more than likely to be, this won’t be the underclassmen’s last trip to Bender Arena.

“We’ve got a really solid program with a lot of young guys,” he said. “I just feel really bad for our seniors that they weren’t able to get this championship but hopefully we get to play for two more and we’ll be good to go.”

Paul VI 56, DeMatha 37

Paul VI (25-6, 14-4): Josh Reaves 17, Evan Taylor 12, Corey Manigault 9, Kevin Dorsey 6, Marcus Derrickson 6, Tyler Scanlon 4, Curtis Jones 2.

DeMatha (27-4, 15-3): Joe Hampton 11, Terrell Allen 6, Reggie Gardner 5, Jaelin Grant 5, Corey Henson 4, D.J. Harvey 4, Thomas Bruce 2.