ESSEX, Md. -- It was a tiny band-box gym, old-school and overflowing, even a cramped stage at one end packed with students and cheerleaders screaming down from above.
The turn-away crowd was on-hand at Mount Carmel (Essex, Md.) to see the No. 1 Cougars play host to No. 9 St. Frances (Baltimore, Md.) in the MIAA 'A' Conference boy's basketball semifinals Feb. 12.
Fans were told to arrive early if they wanted a seat at the modest Catholic school on Old Eastern Avenue, and there were some 50 lined up a half-hour before tip waiting for the girls game to let out before they could enter the room. There were only two rows of bleachers on the players side, as teams and fans merged into one, and both sides woofed back and forth all night. Seemingly every 'Charm City' hoops character, AAU coach, runner or 'huckster' was on hand for the showdown. If you had to get up mid-game, forget it. Your seat would be gone, nor were there sidelines to navigate in the spillover crowd.
But amidst all the chaos of the expected (and delivered) war between the Cougars and Panthers, near-brawls on the floor and off, in this back-and-forth feud amongst two of the city's finest the calm in the storm was an unexpected one: Mount Carmel freshman wing Montez Mathis.
We had heard glowing reports about the smooth and poised 6-4 rookie, one who played well-beyond-his-years in helping lead the Cougars to a 25-5 mark and No. 1 city ranking heading in. And we weren't disappointed as Mathis, perhaps as no freshman we have seen in recent years, let the game come to him in splendid fashion as Mount Carmel prevailed, 73-59, to advance to Sunday's finals versus Calvert Hall.
The scoring line will show Mathis had but eight points, hitting 2-of-6 field goals and 4-of-7 free throws. He wasn't bombing treys from deep like explosive teammates Brian Jefferson, Jr., (13 points) or Terry Nolan, Jr. (10 points), or unleashing wicked dunks like 6-9 jumping-jack center David Erebor (11 points).
But if you wanted someone to probe the smothering St. Frances zone defense -- off the dribble or over-the-top -- by dropping deft passes in the post to 'bigs,' all through the smallest of windows, well it was Mathis.
If you wanted someone to get his long arms into the passing lanes and make three, count 'em, three deflections in a row in the opening minutes of the second half with Mount Carmel trailing only to get back in the game, it was Mathis.
If you wanted someone to snatch long rebounds and, before he hit the floor eyes a-twitching, identify open teammates under the bucket and deliver a laser before landing, it was Mathis.
And if you wanted someone to come from the weakside, somehow over and through four St. Frances players all the way to the three-point line and grab a long rebound with his long arms (while said St. Frances players and even fans shook their heads at what just happened), it was Mathis.
Filling that stat sheet also with five assists, three steals, three blocks, at least four other 'blown assists,' and more deflections and tips than one could count, was the stoic freshman whose facial expression nor body language ever changed. 'Mr. Smooth' it was despite his callow youth.
Thinking back, for comparison sake in Terrapin circles, maybe Johnny Rhodes comes to mind. Possessing an excellent 6-4 frame, long arms, good athleticism and tremendous 'basketball IQ,' Rhodes also let the game come to him, had excellent floor vision and, most of all, remarkable anticipation. There was little wasted motion or energy in his playmaking at one end, or dissecting opponents at the other, eventually becoming Maryland's all-time leading steals man. But Mathis is a bigger -- and even more poised -- version of Rhodes as a high school ninth-grader.
Mathis, who Maryland is already tracking and hosted for a home game this season, was like that on this night, our first viewing of the precocious rookie who played like a seasoned vet in this heated environment.
While his shot came and went (kind of like Rhodes back in the day), a shot that was a bit deliberate and slow at its release point on this night, what a pleasure it was to watch a freshman with so much 'feel' for the game.
You won't find more tenacious defensive teams than St. Frances, and led by guards Kurk Lee, Jr., and Khalil Richard, they were swarming the Cougars the minute they stepped over mid-court. But each time the ball was swung to Mathis, who on the game's first play executed a perfect dribble-drive and head fake to nail a floater in the lane over three St. Frances insiders, there was no panic, no rush. He was already thinking about where to deliver the ball next the moment it touched his hands. In this pressure-cooker, up-and-down frenetic game, he played nearly every minute and we counted one turnover. Numerous times he was the only ball-handler who could get past the St. Frances first line of defense, drawing defenders only to dish just before they converged.
In the first half alone, Mathis found the rare seams in the St. Frances zone, only to drop would-be 'dimes' to Erebor (or fellow Mount Carmel big Will Jenkins (8 points), who had difficulty finishing, negating more assists. Twice Erebor shuffled his feet after Mathis put the ball on the money in his mitts a foot or two from the bucket in contested territory where few entry passes made their way.
Mathis, who had a three-pointer from some 35-feet rim in and out as the first quarter ended and Mount Carmel trailed 15-10, did some of his best work in transition, disrupting the passing lanes, trailing on plays and blocking jumpers of unsuspecting Panthers (see a bewildered Richard in the third quarter), or making the perfect skip-pass to open shooters as the Cougars swung the ball early against the suffocating zone.
Despite trailing at the half by nine points, Mount Carmel's long and athletic backcourt, and Erebor's late push inside, was too much as they pulled ahead late to advance to the finals.
The only emotion, and only time Mathis broke expression, was in the game's final two minutes when he was grabbed from behind in a tussle for the ball and thrown to the ground by St. Frances center Josh Ayeni, which resulted in a technical foul and two shots and possession. Mathis hit the free throws as Mount Carmel went ahead for good with a 65-55 cushion. He also had a hard take and finish over two bigs in that quarter, showing excellent body control and strength for a pup.
While there were long-range bombers (Richard, 20 points, 3 treys), break-you-down shooter/scorers (Lee, 17 points, 2 treys), and physical specimen bigs (Erebor, 5 blocks/several altered shots) negating things in the post in dramatic fashion, if you were to pick a team from scratch of all the players (and many future D1 talents) on the floor, Mathis, with his upside, smarts and 'feel,' may be your first selection.
We could go on and on about all the subtle, 'little' things, the less noticed basketball IQ plays Mathis made on the night. But that would require far more column space. Best of all was his poise and demeanor, and the way he never forced things despite the hostile conditions. His even keel and never trying to play outside of his game. In fact, we would have liked to have seen him be more selfish at times, perhaps attacking the rim or taking more open threes. But that wasn't his game or personality, as he let older teammates enjoy the glory as a set-up man who was a facilitator at both ends.
The other Baltimore freshman guard that jumps out, another 'old-school' type with excellent feel and vision, is John Carroll's Immanuel Quickley. Montez Mathis is a bigger, stronger, more athletic version of Quickley. But keep both names in mind, as you will be hearing them often in the years to come, both around Baltimore round-ball circles as well as in UMD recruiting ones.
Mathis Is The Next Big Baltimore Baller
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