Watson’s 31 leads GW by Frankford

Washington senior guard scored 31 points to guide his team to a 78–63 win over Frankford in Wednesday’s Class AAAA semifinals. TIMES FILE PHOTO

Faced with its leading scorer having a rare off night and a tenacious opponent that kept on coming, George Washington’s dream season was teetering on the brink.

Enter Elmange Watson.

Washington’s senior shooting guard hit big shot after big shot en route to 31 hard-earned points, guiding the Eagles to a 78–63 win over rival Frankford in Wednesday’s Class AAAA semifinals. The game was much closer than the final score indicated, and for awhile, it seemed like the Pioneers were poised to shock the city.

But Watson wasn’t having it. Watson, who transferred from Northeast after averaging more than 20 points per game for the Vikings last season, has taken a backseat, scoring-wise, to Washington senior forward Charles Brown. However, Brown had a very rare off day, managing just 10 points on 3-for-17 shooting, which is exactly why it pays to have an experienced scorer on instant retainer.

“It’s just about winning, and we as a team are not trying to lose,” Watson said after connecting on five three-pointers. “On any given night, anyone can go off, and today was just my turn. If we had lost, it would hurt our team, because we’ve never made it this far before. This win made history that we had to make.”

Indeed, this is the farthest Washington basketball has ever advanced in program history, and the victory set up a Friday evening clash against defending Class AAAA and Public League champions Martin Luther King of Division A (5:30 p.m., at Ben Franklin High School). For one of the few times this season, the Eagles (19–5) will most assuredly be a heavy underdog. But when you look at this Washington team, especially on a day in which its best player was a virtual non-factor, they simply find a way to get it done.

One of the ways they do that is showcasing their depth. Aside from Watson’s heroics, numerous others stepped up to offer huge contributions. Co-point guards Asante Ali (11 points) and Jheron Johnson (12 points) each had big moments, as did senior forward Jerome Blume (10 points, nine rebounds). Johnson in particular shined, as the smallest player on the court for both teams — listed generously at 5-foot-9 — connected on 8 of 11 free throws interspersed with clutch steals, rebounds and assists, many of which came in the crucial fourth quarter in which Washington outscored Frankford 36–20.

“Usually, my job is to be the intensity guy: to play defense, take charges and shut other players down,” said Johnson, a Washington co-captain. “At halftime we were down, and I got a little nervous, so I just figured I had to come out and do something, because I couldn’t let my senior season end like that. I’m really proud of these guys.”

Aside from Watson, Washington came out sluggish and trailed by seven at halftime. Frankford used exceptional defense and strong performances by senior guards Demetrius White (29 points) and Quadire Truesdale (13 points) to lead for the better part of three quarters. But the Pioneers ran out of gas in the fourth, and Washington leapt at the opportunity. Watson, who has known both White and Truesdale for several years, was left impressed by their mettle in a big playoff game on the road.

“Demetrius and Quadire are great players who play hard every night and back down from nothing,” Watson said. “I respect them 100 percent. They’re great guys. When you go against competition you know plays hard, it forces you to bring the same kind of intensity in order to win. It was a very tough, hard-fought game, and I respect that team and give them my applause. But we have a goal and vision, and whoever is in the way, they’re like dominoes that need to be knocked down. So now we’re on to the next one.”

That next opponent comes in the form of King, a team that’s won 18 games on the season, including eight of 10 in the uber-talented Division A (its only losses were two close ones to the first-place, undefeated Constitution). On the flip side of that coin, Washington went 0–2 against Division A competition this season, losing by 23 to Imhotep on on Jan. 19 and by 10 to Philadelphia Electrical on Jan. 31.

In order to win, Washington will need all hands on deck: a bounce-back game from the supremely talented Brown, continued torrid shooting from Watson and contributions from all of the team’s various role players.

“We’re excited, absolutely,” head coach John Creighton said. “These kids have earned it, and they expect to win. Going back to the summer, we set goals to get one and two steps further than the previous years, especially with a senior-heavy team. Today ‘Mange showed that he lives for the moment, and it was nice to see him step up when things weren’t going Charles’ way. That’s what a team does. We’re not a one-trick pony; we run offense for all five guys on the floor, and today he was on the money.”

For his part, Watson said he expects the Eagles to be counted out by almost everybody. He recalled a Washington game all the way back on Dec. 6, when the Eagles traveled to Chester High and ended the school’s 45-game home winning streak. Nobody thought Washington would win that one, either.

“We know King is in Division A and they’re a great team, but this is a different time,” Watson said. “It’s playoff time. This isn’t the regular season anymore, and I think we got our jitters out against Imhotep and PET earlier this season. Playing hard is what it’s all about, and if someone downplays our ability, it could be like us beating Chester all over again. We came out and shocked the city. I know we’re supposed to lose, but we aren’t going out like that. It’s our senior year, and we’re trying to win.”

Johnson, a fellow senior, concurred with his first-year teammate.

“We just have to come play our game,” he said. “All of them guys (on King), they’re regular teenagers just like us. We can’t be nervous. We just have to come out and play how we’ve played everybody else this entire season.”