Stevie Mitchell (above) is leading the best Wilson West Lawn team in program history. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
KUTZTOWN — His team up just four late in the fourth quarter, Stevie Mitchell waited, looking for his moment to strike.
The junior took two powerful dribbles from the right wing, bullying his way into the lane as he had all evening. And then, just as he’d planned, Mitchell stopped on a dime, spinning back to his right, and laid the ball off the glass for a 38-32 lead.
It was the kind of play that’s become the norm for Wilson’s star guard, except it was so much more. In a matter of seconds, Mitchell flashed his strength, smarts and skill, all of which have made him one of Pennsylvania’s fastest rising recruits in the Class of 2021.
“Towards the end of last season and all summer, his game has just really elevated,” Wilson coach Matt Coldren said. “Just the improvement he made in a six-month period was pretty amazing to see.”
He's as big a reason as any why Wilson improved on its 22-6 record from last season — the Bulldogs are currently 28-1 and haven’t lost since late December when Central York handed them a 55-48 defeat in the Hempfield Holiday Tournament.
Since then, Wilson has rolled off 22 straight victories including a 58-56 win at District 1 6A champion Methacton Feb. 1, two wins against District 3 5A winner Muhlenberg and three against District 3 6A runner-up Reading.
And with an opening-round win against North Penn last Saturday, the Bulldogs have already bettered their 2019 postseason finish. Wilson, which lost to Pine-Richland in the opening round of states last year, will play Lower Merion Wednesday night in a Class 6A second-round matchup.
"We had to battle a really good team," Mitchell said after topping the Knights. "It's definitely good to face a team of their caliber early in our playoff run so we get ready for what we're going to see down the stretch."
Though the Bulldogs will take on the Aces at a neutral site, it's all but certain the red-and-black faithful that packed the stands at Kutztown University's Keystone Arena over the weekend will flock to see their team once again.
Perhaps that's because state champions from District 3 have been rare on the boys' side of things in recent years. Just once has the district claimed a winner since 2008 — in 2017, Reading, led by now-San Antonio Spurs guard Lonnie Walker IV, topped Pine-Richland for the 6A crown.
And like with Walker, they'll certainly be coming to see Mitchell, who led Wilson in scoring last year as a sophomore and again this season as a junior.
Not only did Mitchell improve basketball-wise over the summer, but he matured physically. After coming in at 6-foot-1 and 165 pounds last season, Mitchell said he put on about 15 pounds, giving him the confidence to crash into the lane — a place where's at his most effective.
It's why teams like Reading, which is 0-4 against the Bulldogs this season, have had enough of Mitchell.
“I’m tired of playing against him,” Red Knights coach Rick Perez said. “He’s not much of a 3-point shooter yet, but I think that’s going to be an option because he gets to the rack with such ease. Why knock it down when you can get to the rim at will? … If you let Stevie get into the paint, it’s going down.”
Much of Mitchell's basketball growth came during his time with Philly Pride’s 16U team last summer.
Playing alongside an impressive group that included Friends’ Central’s Edward Holland III, Camden Catholic’s Zach Hicks and Cheltenham’s Jaelen McGlone, Mitchell led Philly Pride to a 15-1 record on the Under Armour circuit as well as a national championship in late July.
It was not only an opportunity for Mitchell to learn and grow with some of the area’s best, but also to play without the pressure of being a team’s singular star.
“Just playing with a different group of guys and a different mentality [helped me a lot],” Mitchell said. “It’s definitely fun to play without the spotlight.”
Just like opponents, college programs have taken note of Mitchell's marked improvement.
Area programs in La Salle, Lehigh, Penn and St. Joseph’s have already offered Mitchell, along with Temple and Penn State, both of whom Coldren said are the most serious suitors at the moment.
But Mitchell is quickly drawing interest from outside the Keystone State as well. He holds offers from both Virginia Commonwealth and Virginia Tech, recently added offers from Stanford and Marquette and has started to get more serious looks from top-tier high-major programs in Virginia and Ohio State.
It’s not something Mitchell really likes to discuss, however. When asked about the recruiting process, the junior did his best to gloss over the topic.
“It’s been cool,” he said. “I take it as it comes and I’ll just try to do as best as we can, win as many games as we can right now and then I’ll focus on that after.”
There’s no question Wilson needs that focus. The Bulldogs are talented no doubt, but they need Mitchell at his best — and healthiest. The junior hurt his ankle in Wilson’s district final and then took a hard fall early against North Penn, yet still managed a game-high 17 points.
“Whether it’s 80 percent or 75 percent Stevie, it’s better than having someone else on the floor,” Coldren said.
If the Bulldogs do get past the Aces, they’ll either meet Mitchell’s Philly Pride teammate McGlone and Cheltenham or WPIAL runner-up Mt. Lebanon in the quarterfinals this weekend.
Beyond that, there’s a potential clash with District 7 champion Butler, led by Purdue signee Ethan Morton, in a state semifinal next week.
But no matter who’s on the other sideline, the attention is going to be there for Mitchell.
And he’s more than ready to take it on.
“[Being the centerpiece] is something I definitely had to get used to, just having to come in every night focused,” Mitchell said. “But it’s a role I enjoy having and we’re just going to keep rolling.”