HYATTSVILLE – After Sunday’s 74-58 loss to nationally ranked Weselyan Christian in the National Hoopfest at DeMatha Catholic High School, Mount St. Joseph blue-chip forward Jalen Smith shrugged off any potential worry. The Gaels came out flat, and were quickly down 14 in the first quarter while enduring prolonged droughts without a basket.
It’s the second loss in nine games of the new season for MSJ, which shot 37.5 percent (18-for-48). And Smith isn’t fretting about the most recent defeat to the North Carolina power, which is ranked 21st nationally by USA Today. Instead, Smith views it as a stepping stone for the long haul in a competitive Maryland Interstate Athletic Association A Conference.
“It’s an eye-opener,” said Smith, the Maryland-bound forward who finished with 25 points and 15 rebounds. “They’re a tough team; they’re nationally ranked. If we beat them, it would’ve been nice. … It makes us battle more. We’ll be able to compete with the rest of our schedule.”
Gaels coach Pat Clatchey had the same perception as Smith, admitting his unit was overmatched against Wesleyan Christian, which boasts Jaylen Hoard (Wake Forest; 18 points, six rebounds) and Aaron Wiggins (Maryland; 28 points, five rebounds), two of the top recruits in the country.
“They’re a good team; very talented,” Clatchey said. “The five guys they put on the floor are offensive weapons. We saw them play yesterday. You can tell players you want, but until you experience it, you don’t know. I thought we battled, but the first half and the third quarter started the same way. Other than those two starts, we pretty much played them even.
“One example, you have a lot of high school kids that talk about playing at the [Division I] level. There it was, because everybody [Weselyan Christian] puts on the floor, their top seven or eight, was a Division I player. You have a chance for exposure or to be exposed.”
The Gaels never recovered after Wesleyan Christian started the contest with a 9-0 run and, not long after, upped it to 19-5. MSJ (7-2) stammered early, mustering 2 of its first 13 shot attempts and turned the ball over three times in the process, and never recovered.
Smith accounted for 10 of the Gaels’ 13 first-quarter points, as Wesleyan Christian held a 12-point lead going into the second quarter.
MSJ pulled to within 28-19 at the under-6 mark before halftime, but that would be the closest they came to Wesleyan Christian, who proved to be too much with Smith’s future college teammate, Wiggins, leading the dispatch.
The Gaels trailed 37-27 at the break, but Wesleyan Christian started the second half the same it did the first: A 9-0 run, which then became 12-0 after Wiggins connected on his third triple three minutes into the third, pushed the Gaels’ deficit to 49-27.
MSJ showed some life, responding with an 11-3 run keyed by a Smith layup and three-point play, pulling the Gaels within respectability at 52-38. But Hoard and Wiggins closed the deal thereafter.
It was a good test for MSJ, which eyes its second straight conference title. The Gaels pieced together a solid 64-51 win over No. 4 St. John’s (D.C.) on Dec. 2 and beat No. 16 St. Maria Goretti on Dec. 1 without much of an issue, 63-49. Its only setback was a 74-53 loss to No. 5 John Carroll on Nov. 27, a night Smith termed as a porous rebounding performance. The Gaels look to turn it around at home versus conference opponent Loyola Blakefield this Monday night.
When asked what’s got to be worked on as a collective group, Clatchey said, “We’re a work in progress.”