Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
DREXEL HILL — Roman’s defense was relentless. A young Bonner squad couldn’t handle it.
Whether it was the Cahillites’ guards flying around the court in their three-quarter-court press, or wing Daniel Skillings forcing all sorts of misdirected passes and rethought shots, or big man Shareef Jackson roaming the paint, it seemed like Chris McNesby had six or seven bodies on the court at any time. Slivers of light lasted milliseconds for the Friars, clear looks turning into contested ones in a flash.
The defending runner-ups looked like they were ready to defend their title; their hosts clearly a year away. Roman came into Bonner and forced 22 turnovers, storming out to a big lead and never looking back in a 65-45 win that wasn’t even as close as the final score.
“We were locked in on defense and we were ready to play,” Roman senior Dan Skillings said. “(Bonner) did give it up a lot and throw it away a lot, so we can’t give us all the credit, but we were definitely locked in.”
Though there were a couple unforced mistakes on Bonner’s part, the vast majority of their giveaways were certainly due to Roman’s unending pressure. Nine turnovers alone came in the first quarter, which saw Roman jump out to a 17-3 lead; the advantage was 34-15 at halftime, by which point Roman had forced 14 turnovers.
By the end of the third quarter, Roman (7-2, 2-0) had opened up a 30-point advantage, meaning the entire fourth was played with a running clock.
Roman’s stars did their thing: Skillings, bound for Cincinnati, had 16 points, 15 rebounds, two assists and two blocks, the 6-foot-7 wing using his 7-foot wingspan to great effect. Khalil Farmer, bound for Hofstra, had 20 points, six rebounds and three steals.
Even junior guard Xzayvier Brown, in his first game back after missing time with an ankle injury, got in on the defensive pressure with three steals to complement six points and six assists.
Daniel Skillings (0) had 16 points on 8-of-13 shooting, with 15 rebounds, in an impressive two-way performance. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Several youngsters also played their part. Sophomore Toby Ojukwu (12 points, 5 rebounds, 3 steals) and freshman Will Felder (2 points) both flew around the floor to wreak havoc in the backcourt, often providing the first line of defense.
“Toby and Will are dogs, man,” Skillings said. “Toby’s always on the ball, he’s always putting his chest in front, getting aggressive. Will [...] a freshman, 14 years old, coming out here in a varsity game and getting minutes, getting big charges and getting big stops and being aggressive, getting in people’s head and just bothering them on defense, is a really big help.”
Patrolling the back line was 6-8 freshman Shareef Jackson, one of the more promising young prospects around. Jackson finished with five points, six rebounds, three blocks, two assists and a steal against Bonner, missing a couple early layups but generally acquitting himself well around the floor.
Having a true ‘5’ man is something the Cahillites lacked last year, when they fell to Archbishop Wood in the PCL championship game, costing them a chance in an abbreviated state bracket as well. Adding a post to the mix could be just what Roman needed to get over the edge.
“He plugs that middle pretty good. We had Manny Taylor, Paul Newman [...] it’s similar in that sense, where he’s plugged in,” McNesby said, referencing two forwards who played for him six years ago. “He’s going to be way ahead of that if he keeps going.
Shareef Jackson (44) is a developing young forward in the Roman frontcourt. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“Knowing Reef’s back there, and as long as he stays back and stays solid, we have a rim protector,” he added. “The first month or so, he was a freshman playing with seniors. [It was] painful, at times. Tough for him. They’re getting used to it. I know what he can do, but the trust that they have to get in him, once they buy in, it’s good.”
With all the Cahillites’ available scoring options, Roman doesn’t need Jackson to step in and be a big-time scorer right away. Defense, certainly, is where he can most make his mark.
The son of former Roman standout and NBA big man Marc Jackson, it’s helped that he Jackson’s approaching it with the right attitude for a high school rookie, even one with as bright a future in the game as the Cahillite freshman.
“I understand I’m a freshman, I might not get the ball sometimes, I might not get playing time, but I’m a freshman, that’s expected,” he said. “But when they put stuff on me like expectations, I’ve got to step up and take it seriously, because that’s one of the few opportunities I’m going to get.”
When McNesby led Roman Catholic to back-to-back Catholic League championships in 2015 and 2016, it was with an undersized but talented and hard-working group, led by Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens and Nazeer Bostick.
This year’s Cahillites, as he begins his second stint on the Roman sidelines, have some similarities and some differences. And while McNesby knows his current group has some work to do to get back to the mountaintop — winning both PCL and PIAA state championships — he also knows they’ve got the potential to do so.
They’ll face their first big challenge this Wednesday with a trip up to Archbishop Wood, with a visit from Archbishop Ryan on Friday.
“It’s so fun being back in this league,” McNesby said. “It’s the best league around.”
Roman: 17 | 17 | 22 | 9 || 65
Bonner: 3 | 12 | 14 | 16 || 45
Roman: 25-58 FG (2-8 3PT), 13-16 FT
Bonner: 16-45 FG (4-17 3PT), 9-15 FT
Roman: Khalil Farmer 20, Daniel Skillings 16, Toby Ojukwu 12, Xzayvier Brown 6, Shareef Jackson 5, Quadir Brown 4, Will Felder 2
Bonner: Shakur Smith 18, Brady Eagan 14, Deuce Ketner 6, Baasil Saunders 4, Saaid Lee 3