Baskets rained upon them. Whistles blew against them. Walls caved in around them just as the scoring gap stretched away from them. Trailing the Liberty District’s first place team 35-20 with 4:30 left in the third quarter, the Thomas Jefferson Colonials seemed headed for that most cliche of Northern Region boys basketball results: a TJ blowout in favor of the opponent.
Yet those lulling moments of mundanity proved only to be the calm before the storm at George C. Marshall High on Tuesday night. Like a grizzly stirring out of hibernation, Jefferson suddenly broke out of its listless funk and became hungrier with each deficit-trimming bucket. A layup here, a defensive stop there, another swish a couple plays later, the Colonials’ 23-6 second-half run resembled a slowly intensifying hurricane more than it did a breakneck tornado.
The visitors claimed their first lead, 43-41, off a high bank shot by Seth Jaffe with 1:43 left in regulation, but they had to settle for overtime after Marshall guard Noe Eriksen-Brottet closed the floodgates with a game-tying jumper thirty seconds from the final buzzer. One overtime period gave way to another before the storm finally settled on an unlikely 55-54 Jefferson victory.
Tuesday’s gritty triumph marked the seventh win in the last eight games played by a Jefferson (8-7, 3-4 Liberty) team that took a 1-6 record into Christmas day. Their unprecedented post-holiday run has the Colonials believing they can hang with anyone during a long-term quest to erase their program’s pushover reputation.
“When we were down in the dumps at 1-6, a lot of people had written us off saying it’s just going to be another season for TJ,” Jefferson coach Mark Gray-Mendes said. “Our [seniors] got together and decided that’s not how they wanted to leave and end their career.”
This season’s turnaround began last month with a holiday tournament victory at the Joe Cascio Classic at Falls Church, where the Colonials dispatched Freedom-South Riding, Falls Church and Stuart en route to the trophy. According to senior guard Marcus Prater, the confidence drawn from that success allowed the team to believe it was better than its record indicated.
“When we went in there and we won three in a row and got the trophy, we all really felt like, ‘We’re pretty good. We can do the kind of things that we see other teams in the district doing,’” Prater said.
After a two-point road win against Madison the following week, Jefferson traveled to McLean to take on a team it hadn’t beaten since 1989. They held on for a 49-46 victory against the Highlanders before finally falling three days later against Stone Bridge, 47-36.
Jefferson’s surge has been spurred by a strong senior class led by Joe Nissen, Marcus Prater and Migdam Gebril. The team’s six seniors — all of them captains — have pushed their younger teammates in practice, helping guys like 6-foot-6 sophomore Sharan Arkalgud and sophomore wing Seth Jaffe gain the wherewithal needed to become regular contributors. That development has translated into a cohesion that wasn’t present earlier in the season, when the team was still tinkering with its rotations.
“We’re really coming together as a team. The chemistry is really going,” said Nissen, the team’s leading scorer. “I think that’s something we didn’t really have the last few years. This year we have a group of guys that are really working well together. We’ve all been playing together since we were freshmen. We have more seniors than we normally have on the team.”
The Colonials’ rise fits into Gray-Mendes’s plan to cast aside the specter of losing seasons gone by and embrace a brighter future for a school that prides itself more on academic accolades than roundball triumphs. Now in his third year as head coach, the 27-year-old Gray-Mendes has already achieved a handful of milestones at the helm of a program he once played for. His first season saw the team reach its best overall record (11-11) and best district record (7-7) in 14 years, and his second season featured the program’s first postseason win and first regional tournament appearance in 15 years.
With seven games left on the schedule, more high-water marks appear well within reach, but Gray-Mendes has deeper aspirations in mind.
“I would like to see these guys make the region tournament again, but the biggest thing is I want them to leave their mark as players,” Gray-Mendes said. “Guys like Joe [Nissen] and Marcus [Prater], who have been playing for me for three years, I want them to have something during their senior year that they can really point to and say, ‘That was our accomplishment. That’s what we did.’ I want them to be able to do something special for themselves as seniors to really nail down the idea that we’re going to be a competitive basketball program and move forward for the next several years.”
Jefferson will try to carry its momentum into another tough road contest Friday, when the Colonials will battle Langley (12-3, 5-2), now sole owners of first place in the district after Marshall’s stumble. It will be Jefferson’s tallest task of a season that has reversed course and taken aim at taller mountains ahead.
“The big ultimate goal is the district championship,” Prater said. “In our gym we have all the banners around, and our boys basketball banner is completely blank. We think we can be the team that can put some numbers up there.”