After having the spotlight for nearly 90 minutes, Jason Clark sat down on the bench and concealed his teary-eyed face as the buzzer sounded. His wide-set shoulders sunk into his wiry arms, and the O’Connell senior couldn’t bear to watch the raging blob of purple chanting and howling on Monday evening at American University’s sold-out Bender Arena.
Clark, the Georgetown-bound guard, had nearly willed O’Connell to the prestigious Washington Catholic Athletic Conference tournament title, but instead was out-dueled by nemesis Max Kenyi and Gonzaga. The Eagles won 71-63, in what was their third win over the Knights this season.
“They’re disappointed,” said ninth-year O’Connell coach Joe Wootten. “I thought we played hard. We battled. We never gave up and kept coming back at them. I’m just proud of them.”
Kenyi, a Harvard-bound guard who guarded Clark for much of the game, nailed 13-of-16 shots en route to a game-high 30 points, giving nationally-ranked Gonzaga both the regular season and tournament WCAC titles, in what many consider to be the toughest conference in prep basketball.
“The stars were aligned for us,” said Gonzaga head coach Steve Turner. “Not only did [Kenyi] score 30 points, but he was having to guard one of the best players in the area. He was having to do it on the defensive end and on the offensive end. He left everything on the floor as a senior.”
Kenyi, who finished one point shy of his career high, gave Gonzaga, which is enjoying its best season in school history, a 10-point advantage early in the fourth quarter.
“He hit tough shots,” Clark said. “It wasn’t like we didn’t play good defense on them. He just hit tough shots. It was a good back-and-forth ball game.”
Sophomore guard Kendall Marshall, who is the youngest-ever player to verbal to the University of North Carolina, drained a trey from the left baseline, to start a six-point spurt. The Knights closed to within four with less than six minutes to go, but couldn’t get any closer. Marshall had four points at halftime, but finished with 19.
“It was really hard,” Clark said of not getting the title. “This is something I’ve been fighting for, for four years straight. I really wanted to go out on a good note my senior year.”
<b>THAT CLARK</b> was even playing was a testament to the combo guard, considering that he severely sprained his left ankle during semifinals on Sunday. With his team down 16 points early in the previous night to DeMatha, a bitter rival, Clark keyed a second-half comeback to give O’Connell a 55-49 victory.
“It was adrenaline,” Clark said. “I just didn’t worry about the pain. I knew I had to go out there and play for my team.”
Clark carried the Knights on Monday, netting 19 points in the first half on 7-of-7 shooting. He finished with a team-high 26 points.
“I just feel for him,” Wootten said. “He’s such a great kid. As of last night (Sunday), he couldn’t even walk. To put on a performance like that, he’s got the heart of a champion.”
The teams could potentially play once more. Gonzaga will face Theodore Roosevelt in the City Title game on March 4, while the Knights will play in the Virginia Independent School state tournament, which starts Thursday. Both teams will participate in the Alhambra Catholic Invitational Tournament, which O’Connell won three straight times from 2003-2005.
“You could tell everybody was hurting, but we’ll bounce back,” Clark said after the game. “We’re going to take all of our anger out on this loss and go into another tournament and win it.”