The best public high school—academically speaking—in the Northern Region met the best basketball-playing high school in the Northern Region on Monday night in the first round of the regional tournament.
And as one might have guessed, T.C. Williams—the defending region champs who made the VHSL’s final four a year ago—defeated Thomas Jefferson, 56-40, thanks to strong outside shooting by Jordan Byrd along with a stifling defense in the second and third quarters. The Patriot District’s tournament champions pulled away after trailing the upstart Colonials 13-9 after the first quarter.
It was the final high school game for Thomas Jefferson’s Richard Kuzma—one of the top scorers in the region for the past two years—and aside from a tough third quarter when the Titans clamped down on him, he acquitted himself well, tallying 20 points. Fittingly, for one of the best free-throw shooters in the D.C.-area, his final three baskets came from the foul line after he was hit taking a shot from behind the arc.
Kuzma scored the last 12 points of the game for Thomas Jefferson (9-16), showing some spark and bringing his team back from a 50-29 deficit with 5:20 to play.
“You could put together a highlight reel just from that fourth quarter,” said coach Mark Gray-Mendes. “He’s had a tremendous career for us and showed a number of these guys what it means to be a high-level basketball player. He had a great end to his high school career, that fourth quarter was really something special.”
The Titans also showed the talent that should make them one of the toughest teams out of the remaining eight in the regional tournament, with Byrd displaying a nice touch from outside, connecting on three 3-pointers, while Mert Ozkaynak hit a pair of triples. Anthony Huggins cleaned up inside, collecting 12 points as the Titans ran their winning streak to seven straight after beginning the season at an uncharacteristic 11-8.
“We’ve had stretches where we’ve played good basketball, we just haven’t put together 32 minutes,” said coach Julian King. “So winning the Patriot District was a big confidence booster. Now these kids are thinking, maybe we can win the whole thing.”
The Titans will host Westfield, who edged Wakefield, on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in the next round of the tournament.
Just after tip-off of Jefferson’s first appearance in the regional tournament since 1997, with the Colonials holding a 7-4 advantage, student activities director Shawn DeRose said he was looking forward to the day when his team wouldn’t see a tournament appearance as groundbreaking. Even still, it was quite a landmark moment for a school that made headlines in 2010, not for anything that happened on the court, but for a player revolt that resulted in the ouster of then-coach Ed Grimm. In a meeting before the 2010-11 season, the returning Jefferson players asked Grimm to resign after 13 straight seasons without a playoff win and the intimation that the Colonials were incapable of competing due to a lack of talent.
Some of those players were on the floor Monday night, and many of them contributed to the Colonials’ upset win over South Lakes in the first round of the Liberty District tournament, a win that extended their season into regional play for the first time in 15 years.
“There are a lot of tears in [the locker room] right now,” said Gray-Mendes, a Jefferson grad who took over the program after Grimm left. “Once these guys sit back and take stock of the entire season, they’ll realize what they’ve accomplished is really significant. … Truly something to be proud of.”
Mendes went on to say the group of seniors—Kuzma, Shriram Sudararaman, David Neuberger, Samy Singh, Burke Deutsch and Mike Taylor—would have a special place in the school’s history as “the group that got us over the hump.”
Kuzma, who will be attending the United States Naval Academy after he graduates in the spring, said he already knows his years at Jefferson have given him a leg up on the rest of his life.
“The time commitment was a shock at first, and realizing you’ve got to work hard all the time was tough, but it really pushed me and molded my character,” said Kuzma, who commutes each day from Leesburg. “I met a lot of great people at Jefferson, and we were able to do some good things on and off the court.”