Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
(Ed. Note: I wrote this story at 1:30 AM. It’s likely going to get edited in the AM)
HERSHEY — Roman Catholic watched a lot of tape to get ready for its PIAA Class 6A championship game.
Well, specifically, one game, over and over. A three-point loss to Archbishop Wood in January, their last defeat before a string of 11 straight wins. It was a game more than half a season away, but there was no better way for the Cahillites to prepare to face their league foes in the state title game.
Daniel Skillings Jr. (above) had 31 points in Roman's state championship win. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
“We watched it a lot,” senior Daniel Skillings Jr. said. “We watched it a lot, and we just learned from it. We knew it was going to be a lot different from the first time that we played because we’re a lot more together, we’re a lot better.”
The Cahillites got their revenge and all the benefits that came with it, capturing their fourth state championship in the last seven tournaments with a 77-65 win at the GIANT Center on Saturday night.
Skillings, the 6-foot-7 wing who will head to the University of Cincinnati in just a few months, was sensational, especially in the second half, when he scored 22 of his game-high 31. Not bad for a kid who only started playing organized basketball as a freshman in high school, arriving at Roman as a junior still very much an unpolished prospect, all arms and legs and upside. Eighteen months later, he’s headed to the Big 12, with a gold medal around his neck.
“It means a lot to me, man. It means a lot,” he said. “Going out as a state champion is a great way to end, to go to college, it’s a great way to end the year, with my team, the losses we took. It was amazing.”
Skillings was 14-of-26 from the floor, making his final nine shots as Roman took over in the latter parts of the third quarter and into the fourth, taking what had been a three-point game at halftime and going up a dozen heading into the fourth quarter.
The future Bearcat scored on seemingly impossible drives, working his long frame around defenders and to the rim, knocked down a couple jumpers, hit a few floaters and pull-ups, getting production from all over the court. He completed a double-double with 11 rebounds, adding two assists, steals, and blocks to boot.
“Dan can score in so many different ways, especially attacking the basket and our guys feed off that,” Roman coach Chris McNesby said. “He’s so active and when he’s active he’s so hard to guard.”
The title was the third for McNesby, who previously led Roman to titles in 2015 and 2016, the first in the program’s illustrious history — the Philadelphia Catholic League only joined the PIAA within the last 15 years — before stepping aside for five seasons.
But it was the first for all of his players, who also haven’t won a Catholic League championship, falling in the semifinals this year and in the finals a year ago. That 64-61 loss to Wood earlier in the season was the least of their demons, even if it was the most relevant to game plan for.
“I’m so happy for these seniors,” McNesby said. “Some of them have never won anything and to win a title, it’s with them forever. No one can ever take it away and I know that they’re proud of this.”
Freshman forward Shareef Jackson (above) had a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
The key difference from Roman’s earlier loss to Wood, multiple players acknowledged, was a stronger effort on the glass. There’s no doubt that the play of freshman forward Shareef Jackson had a significant role in that. The muscular 6-8 post had 11 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks and two assists, holding Wood junior and D-I recruit Carson Howard to two points and two rebounds.
“He’s really been the difference in our year,” McNesby said. “Once our guys started believing in him and he started gaining confidence in what he could do at this level, we’ve been able to throw it into him and take the pressure off everybody else. He’s gotten better and better from there.”
Skillings and Roman’s other Division I-bound senior, Khalil Farmer (Hofstra), did their thing in their final high school wins; Farmer added 12 points and five assists, making two 3-pointers.
Junior point guard Xzayvier Brown, sporting a giant smile well after the final buzzer sounded, was at a loss for words after pouring in 16 points, eight rebounds, four assists and two steals.
“I feel great, can’t describe it,” he said. “Just happy we won.”
For Wood, the defeat at the precipice of the school’s second-ever state title is a repeat from last year, when it was Reading who denied the Vikings their trophy.
Drexel-bound point guard Justin Moore, who came over from Bishop McDevitt when it closed after last school year, led the way with 21 points, dishing out eight assists.
“I appreciate Coach Mosco for taking me in, taking care of me and putting me in a great situation to compete for a state championship and PCL championship,” he said, “but also for putting me around a bunch of great players.
“We stuck together through the ups and downs and we’ll stick together in the offseason. We want to keep preparing the underclassmen for next year.”
Sophomore Jalil Bethea, who dropped 11 3-pointers in the state quarterfinals and has had a breakout second half of his season, finished with 15 points, five rebounds and three assists. He’ll be one of the key players for the Vikings next year, along with juniors Bahsil Laster and Howard, plus classmate Josh Reed and some impressive freshmen who’ve been biding their time on the JV squad.
Gone will be Moore, plus classmates Tyson Allen and Mike Knouse, four-year Wood players who finally got their time in the spotlight this season; Allen and Knouse combined for 18 points and 10 rebounds in their final game in a Vikings uniform.
“I couldn’t be more proud of all the young guys,” Allen said. “I don’t think anyone really thought we’d be here this year, I don’t know if anyone thought we’d be anywhere but we had faith in ourselves, we knew we were going to be good this year and we just kept going out and playing.
Roman: 16 | 17 | 21 | 23 || 77
Wood: 19 | 11 | 12 | 23 || 65
Roman: 28-58 FG (5-13 3PT), 16-26 FT
Wood: 23-53 FG (7-18 3PT), 12-16 FT
Roman: Daniel Skillings Jr. 31, Xzayvier Brown 16, Khalil Farmer 12, Shareef Jackson 11, Toby Ojukwu 7
Wood: Justin Moore 21, Jalil Bethea 15, Tyson Allen 10, Mike Knouse 8, Bahsil Laster 6, Josh Reed 3, Carson Howard 2