The 2018-19 season for Virginia private school basketball officially wrapped up this past weekend in Chesterfield, VA, as the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association (VISAA) held its Final Four of the state tournament at Virginia State University. During the last two seasons, I’ve been able to check out this event as a spectator (during spring breaks in college), but found more enjoyment in providing coverage of it all now as a scout/journalist. VISAA and Virginia State presented excellent hospitality, while I had several takeaways from teams/players throughout the two days. After observing bracket play of VISAA’s three divisions, I figured the best way to break things down would be detailing each classification in an individual manner:
Without question, the Division I bracket had the most upsets in games! This did well in shaking things up and keeping those in attendance more curious to which team would ultimately take home the gold. St. Stephen’s St. Agnes School (Alexandria, VA), Episcopal High School (Alexandria, VA), Paul VI Catholic High School (Fairfax, VA), and Bishop O’Connell High School (Arlington, VA) made it a battle of Northern, VA for those two days.
Semifinal Game #1 (Friday, 3/1):
Episcopal HS – 63
Paul VI Catholic HS – 59
Semifinal Game #2 (Friday, 3/1):
St. Stephen’s St. Agnes School – 76
Bishop O’Connell – 46
Championship (Saturday, 3/2):
St. Stephen’s St. Agnes School – 67
Episcopal HS – 58
Some Game/Team Notes
- After watching Episcopal again for the third total time in their first round win over Norfolk Academy last week (2/26), I wrote that it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Maroons take down a higher seed during their tournament run. The group proved my point in a huge manner on Friday when they finished off WCAC-powerhouse Paul VI, who won the state title last March. After down by eight at the end of the opening period, mainly due to a slow shooting start, Episcopal gained momentum by Jack Fitzpatrick’s ’20 four consecutive three-pointers, giving the team a three-point lead heading into the break. The game mainly acted as a back-and-forth scoring affair all night, with several lead changes in the fourth quarter, but late defensive stops and made free throws helped secure the win for Episcopal. A big-time win for head coach Jim Fitzpatrick’s group.
- I expected the last game of Friday night, the semifinal matchup between St. Stephen’s St. Agnes School (SSSAS) and Bishop O’Connell, to end up similarly to the Episcopal/Paul VI game as tightly-played. So, it perplexed me to see SSSAS easily coast through with a 30-point blowout. I saw the Saints play a total of four times this season and can officially say they had one of the most complete teams in Arlington, VA. I didn’t really see any notable holes in the group; they have it all with size, speed, shooters, defensive intensity, and roster depth. To easily put away a really good team like O’Connell spoke volumes. They received great contributions from every player who stepped onto the floor.
- There’s a handful of teams around the state that play at a very past pace, but there’s just something different about Paul VI. I’d have to define their style as pretty much neck-breaking; they play at a next-level type of speed, led by scintillating point guard Dug McDaniel ’22. The Panthers’ knack for making quick decisions in the open floor also stands out; it seems like they always know what play they want to make as soon as the ball’s rebounded or inbounded. It’s obviously never easy having to regroup when one of the best backcourts in the country, Jeremy Roach ’20 and Anthony Harris ’19, both go down early on with season-ending injuries. Nevertheless, I’ve really been impressed with how Paul VI has still gone about their business to remain a big threat in one of the top high school conferences in the country. They have a special underclassmen trio to work with in McDaniel, Avery Ford ’21, and Trevor Keels ’21.
- SSSAS and Episcopal matched up for the fifth time this season in the championship, as the two programs compete in the Interstate Athletic Conference (IAC). The Saints finished undefeated in this year’s series between the two, while ranking as the #2 team in the state of Virginia, right behind Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, VA). Episcopal put up a good fight for 32 minutes but the Saints maintained a lead of about 6-8 points for the majority of the contest. Once again, their depth played a big factor, as well as their size. I remember noting at one point during the second quarter that SSSAS put out a lineup of 6’2,” 6’5,” 6’7,” 6’8,” and 6’10.” In all, they used this inside advantage well and shot the ball a bit better to take home the trophy; capping off a great 27-3 season.
Final Four Standouts
Xavier Lipscomb ’20 – SSSAS: First and foremost, the Saints’ lead guard simply knows how to win; point blank period. He’s a strong 6’2” guard that knows how to never force the issue and get all of SSSAS’ talented wings/forwards involved. Lipscomb can rebound and pitch the ball ahead in transition excellently, while also sometimes just taking it coast-to-coast himself. As a lefty, he can attack in either direction and knows how to slow down for finishes with body control. Defensively, he stays locked in to make other ball-handlers uncomfortable and can guard for a good length of the floor. The junior, named All-IAC this season, has developed into a reliable veteran for the Saints who checks off many boxes as a true floor general and leader. One of the more underrated point guards I’ve seen this winter; looking forward to seeing his recruitment process.
Darius Johnson ’21 – Episcopal: Very few guys at Johnson’s age has range on their shot like his. The sophomore launched and made three-pointers from all over the court during the two days, with a smooth release and zero hesitation. He saved his best play for the second halves of both Episcopal’s semifinal and championship match-ups. Against Paul VI, he had one of the biggest impacts by scoring 18 out of his 20 points in the final two quarters and making timely shots for the Maroons during those lead changes. The next night, against SSSAS, I remember him swishing four three-pointers in the second half after struggling a bit entering the game. The guy can flat out shoot it but also has a way of getting to the rim for crafty finishes. This scoring package keeps defenders guessing at all times what he’ll do with the ball in his hands. I don’t think it’ll be long before we see Johnson move up in the rankings to become one of the top players at his position in the Northern VA area.
Charles Thompson ’19 – SSSAS: The 2019 IAC Player of the Year had a typical strong showing in the paint, giving opponents trouble with his constant activity. Thompson plays like a grown man at 6’8,” using his power to go after rebounds, finish inside, and slam it home on every possible chance. He has excellent hands and a good feel for where the ball will end up on the court, hustling down after it to give his team second chances off of misses. His motor looked good at all times, as well as his disciplined way of performing on the court; he never tried to do anything out of his range. Decreasing his fouls can improve a bit but everything else about the senior impressed at that position. A Towson University signee, the Tigers and their fans should love the energy he’ll bring. Developing a reliable close jumper, around the midrange/short corner area, will make scoring even easier for him, since he won’t have to pound his way into the paint at all times.
Xavier Johnson ’19 – Episcopal: The talented scoring guard had his playmaking skills on full display once again, as well as some big moments in the win over Paul VI. Johnson’s control with the ball allowed him to get paint touches pretty easily and he finished well over bigger opponents once getting a look at the rim. Whenever he didn’t have the ball, he sprinted in the open floor to fly past the defense trying to get back. The 6’1” combo guard shoots the ball at a good rate but also doesn’t settle if he sees the chance to attack. This mindset makes him a constant threat, as he has the tools to create space and work in isolation situations if Episcopal needed a bucket. He’s had a great career with the Maroons and I’m confident that the George Mason staff can’t wait to get him into the program soon. I see a successful career happening for him in the Atlantic 10 conference.
Trevor Keels ’21 – Paul VI: Glenn Farello, head coach of the Panthers, has a special prospect in the young Keels; it’s so easy to forget that he’s still an underclassman. I don’t even think Keels has fully grown into his body yet, as he already stands at 6’4” with a stocky build. His skill development has taken a huge leap, as he now looks like one of the most complete players on the Paul VI roster. He can bully his way into the paint, while also not hesitating to shoot from the outside if left open. His IQ goes beyond that of most players at his age; he approaches the game with a veteran-like presence already. It’s been a big year for him in stepping up to take over a bigger scoring role as a sophomore, as his recognized actions earned him WCAC Co-Player of the Year honors. Now, the four-star prospect has received more and more high-major offers/interest, which should only continue as the summer arrives.
Brayon Freeman ’21 – Bishop O’Connell: Another fellow sophomore, I saw the most potential in Freeman out of O’Connell’s returners for next season. He’s a poised scoring guard with a nice patient game and can score in different ways. He looked best for the Knights during the second half of their game against SSSAS, as he had several moments of taking over to put points on the board. At 6’1,” it looks like Freeman’s still working to become more of a point guard, or combo guard. His natural feel for the game and handle should make it not much of an issue for him to transition into that role if it’s called upon. One thing he has in his offensive arsenal already is a pull-up jumper; something that I’ve stressed upon as important for all primary ball-handlers. While they’ll lose a couple of pieces to graduation, O’Connell should feel a lot of optimism having their talented guard in the mix for the next couple of seasons.
Jamal Barnes ’20 – SSSAS: He performed solidly on Friday, but Barnes saved his best for last in the title game, going for a game-high 21 points, 16 of which happened in the second half. He has good size for a two-guard at 6’5” and can really spot up to shoot with elevation and a smooth release. Barnes also made some nice straight line drives to the rim and can find open lanes while running the floor in transition for easy scores. Amongst all of the Saints’ talent, Barnes finds a way to check in and contribute every time I watch him play. He’s a guy who can sneak up on teams and catch fire if they allow him to find comfort. With Christian DePollar ’19 graduating in the incoming months, I definitely view Barnes as the best shooter returning next season and should take on an even bigger role for SSSAS. Excellent performance in the championship that happened at the perfect time.
Don’t forget to also check out my recaps of both the VISAA Division II and Division III Final Four! Great games played in those two brackets.