“I never expect to lose a game…but I never expected we’d win them all.” Those were the words of PSA Prep basketball coach Tom Espinosa Friday night as he sat in his basement, surrounded by his coaching staff and friends, and reflected on a season that concluded just a few hours earlier.
The Mustangs beat Northfield Mount Hermon 72-54 in the final of the National Prep Championship tournament Friday night, and as the PSA-heavy crowd chanted “UN-DE-FEATED! UN-DE-FEATED!” in the final seconds, it was official: PSA was in fact undefeated, finishing with a spotless 38-0 record to put an exclamation point on their third national crown in five years and stake their claim as the greatest team in PSA history.
“Going 38-0 is not easy,” said Desmond Claude, who was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. “It takes a toll on your body because of the intensity that we play with. It’s high-level, it’s intense. We just have to push and push. It’s a lot. A lot more than I think we might have thought before we got here. But we wanted it enough to win, and everybody accepted their role and we did what we had to do. We came out of it national champions.”
Claude had 26 points in the title game and cemented himself as The Man on a team that featured a lot of leading men. As the season wore on, and it became especially evident in the postseason, when the Mustangs needed a bucket, they were looking for Claude.
“It was a great way for him to finish this season, especially because he struggled at first,” Espinosa said. “He wasn’t used to our defensive schemes, he wasn’t used to the intensity of what we do. He wasn’t starting, and then when he went on his college visits, he really fell behind. And he could’ve done what some kids have done in the past; he could’ve pouted, he could’ve complained, he could’ve taken the easy way out and quit and gone somewhere else. But he didn’t. He trusted us, and just bought in and got better and better. He’s a phenomenal kid, a phenomenal player. He was the go-to guy offensively. This was his tournament.”
The Mustangs controlled the game throughout, taking their first lead, 18-15, about midway through the first half on a 3-pointer by Darryl Simmons. Simmons joined Hassan Diarra as the only players in PSA history with two championships, and he has a chance for three, as he returns next year for his final season. The Mustangs led 34-26 at halftime, and while NMH never fully went away, the final result was never in doubt either. Kingsley finished with 15 points, 11 rebounds, and four blocks, while Evans had five points, six rebounds, and five steals.
Mouhamed Dioubate, who transformed himself into a major player after looking like he didn’t belong at this level when he joined the Mustangs in the second semester of last season, came up with two monster, crucial blocked shots that provided huge momentum boosts for the Mustangs. “This means everything,” he said. “We’ve been working for this since September. It means hard work pays off. Since Day One, we all came together, we all had one goal. And we did it. I wasn’t even thinking about 38-0. We just wanted to win. This is history right here. No one’s ever done this.”
Arturo Dean, the absolute heartbeat of this team said: “It’s like a relief off our shoulders. We’ve been talking about this since September. It feels so good to accomplish a goal, and do it in style, and with the swag we did, it feels real good.”
The Mustangs take pride in playing anyone, anywhere. They played half of the field that was in the national tournament during the regular season, so it wasn’t a cupcake schedule. PSA won its 38 games by an average of 32 points per game, and won its four games at the national tournament by an average of 22 points. Their two closest games were decided by three points apiece, a 100-97 overtime win in late January against Brewster Academy (who was unranked at the time but was No. 2 in the tournament) and a 90-87 win over Mt. Zion, who was ranked No. 2 at the time (and No. 3 in the tournament), in early February. PSA trailed Brewster by eight with 90 seconds to play in that game, but Barry Evans sent it to overtime with a putback just before the buzzer, and Sotirios Nafpliotis hit the biggest shot of the season, a game-winning 3 with about four seconds to go to keep the possibility of perfection alive.
“It’s not easy to go 38-0. It’s not,” said DayDay Gittens, the ultra-smooth, do-it-all guard. “This was hard work. The scores of our games might not have always shown it was hard, but we put in so much hard work outside of the game itself. We earned this.”
“When I came here, I thought we were going to do well because I had learned about the history here,” said Nafpliotis, a native of Greece. “But to be honest I didn’t think we were going to do this well. This is the dream of every kid. To play basketball and be a part of a team that is the best to do it.”
The celebration started on the bench Friday with about 1:30 to go. Dean, Evans, Claude, Gittens, and Ugonna Kingsley – the 7-foot game-changer who joined PSA over the semester break – all checked out of the lineup for one last time. Travis Upchurch dribbled out the final seconds before throwing the ball high into the air, setting off a raucous scene that included PSA students storming the court.
“It got a little emotional at the end of the game because it’s going to be over with these guys. These guys brought fun back for me,” Espinosa said. “And not that last year wasn’t fun being with the team, but with Covid and just how crazy that made everything, and there wasn’t a national tournament for them to play in, it was difficult. But these guys brought back the fun. They taught me that basketball is supposed to be fun.”
Momo Cissé, who lost his starting position when Kingsley came in but embraced his role as a leader on the second unit, said: “We did our job before the season even started. Espo and our coaches pushed us hard for us to accomplish this goal. This is what PSA basketball does. We are the best team in the country, we are undefeated. We did it!”
The Mustangs advanced to the final with a 78-53 win over Scotland Campus Friday morning (semis and final are held on the same day). Kingsley blocked 12 shots and grabbed 11 rebounds, while Cissé was excellent as well, blocking five shots and grabbing five rebounds. In all, PSA blocked 22 shots.
Claude had 20 points to go with seven rebounds. Dean had 18 points, five rebounds, and four assists, while Gittens and Dioubate both finished with 12 points.
Sunrise Christian drained a 3-pointer with four minutes to go in the quarterfinals to get within one point of PSA, but they never scored again after that. The Mustangs closed on a 13-0 run for an 84-70 win. Claude had 22 points, Dean 20, and Kingsley nine points, nine rebounds, and 10 blocks for the Mustangs (36-0).
Claude had 14 points, five rebounds, five assists, and three steals to lead PSA to a 91-60 win over Bradford Christian in the first round. Kingsley added 14 points, nine rebounds, and five blocks, while Evans posted a double-double with 12 points and 10 boards.