Mater Dei players learned more than basketball on China trip


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By Matthew Rocco

Two Mater Dei Prep student-athletes had a unique experience on the basketball court this summer. For a little more than a week, their court was all the way in China, where a group of local players traveled to compete with the top teams there.

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The U.S. team made the trip as part of Alexander Basketball Academy’s Global Squad. For the past six years, Global Squad has invited players from around the world to come to the U.S. This year, they flipped the script. Ten players from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland went to Beijing in early August.

Mater Dei’s Elijah Barnes and Kenny Jones were part of the American contingent, and they returned from the trip having learned more about the game and the world.

Both Barnes and Jones said the Chinese teams played a different style of basketball. It involved less passing and more one-on-one plays, meaning every player had to be on point with their shots. Global Squad’s games were a lesson in developing a diverse skill set on the court.

“They take a lot of jump shots in transition. We normally try to get to the basket,” said Jones, a junior guard for the Seraphs. “They take a lot of jump shots, and even if they miss, they keep shooting. They also have a lot of good ballhandlers. Almost the entire team can dribble.”

Barnes, a senior forward who has committed to Princeton University, noted how playing international teams can translate to more success back home at Mater Dei.

“I learned that I have to be more of a good passer, to help my teammates and make better passes,” he said.

Global Squad trained and scrimmaged with Chinese teams at the LiNing Sports Center near Beijing’s Olympic Village. China’s representatives were the top four 16- to 18-year-old squads, who will compete for the national championship.

In addition to showcasing American basketball and improving their own skills, the trip allowed Barnes and Jones to do some sightseeing at famous spots like the Great Wall of China. For Jones and Barnes, it was their first time outside the country, and they were grateful to Mater Dei and the Alexander Basketball Academy for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Barnes said the trip opened his eyes to how things can be different in other parts of the world.

“When we watched TV there, they didn’t tell you what was going on in the world. We’re lucky to have what we have in the U.S.,” he said.

“Basketball is providing a great opportunity for these young men,” said John Alexander, who runs the Alexander Basketball Academy. “I’m very excited for our team to play against some of the best high school players in China, see Beijing and interact with students from a different culture.”

Mater Dei head coach Ben Gamble said Barnes and Jones set an example for other student-athletes.

“They embody the Mater Dei Prep academic and athletic philosophy,” the coach said.

The Seraphs had a storybook season in the program’s first year under Gamble. Mater Dei rallied from 18 points down to beat Christian Brothers Academy for the Shore Conference Tournament championship — the program’s first. The Seraphs also upset third-seeded Trenton Catholic Academy in the NJSIAA Non-Public South B tournament, advancing as far as the semifinals. They ended the season with an overall record of 26-2.

Looking ahead to the 2016-17 season, Jones will use his summer experience in China to help the Seraphs reach their goals.

“We have to play together. We shared the ball very well in China. Everybody scored and played well. I think Mater Dei needs to do that to win a state championship, and we also play great defense,” Jones said. “We want to win the Shore Conference and win a state championship.”

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