After an impressive 80-70 victory over No. 1 point guard Tyus Jones and Apple Valley High School in the GEICO ESPN High School Basketball Showcase in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the Whitney Young Dolphins returned to Chicago for their first home game against Farragut High School on December 16. And even though the squad came out victorious, the momentum following the double digit national win failed to make it back to the Windy City as they finished in an ugly 56-50 win.
“We played poorly,” Duke-bound center Jahlil Okafor admitted. “Of course they came in wanting to win. They didn’t back down. They weren’t afraid of us, which is expected playing in the City of Chicago in the Red West.
“We played down to the competition. We played awful.”
Senior power forward Paul White chimed in: “We just didn’t come out with any energy. It was a tough day for us and luckily we ended up pulling it through. Farragut is a real good team with a lot of guards. They just came down hitting three after three and we didn’t expect it.”
Farragut is not a team known for having many, if any, star athletes but in the Monday night matchup, the Admirals came ready to prove the hype of going up against basketball powerhouse Young was an afterthought and the only thing that counted was having enough heart and determination to prove talent was only half the battle. They forced the Dolphins into countless turnovers leading the Admirals to convert those possessions into fast break points and six triples behind the line.
Head coach Ty Slaughter was visibly disappointed from the sidelines and more than likely had a few choice words for his team as the postgame talk took much longer than usual, leaving family, friends, and fans waiting for 45 minutes after the game’s conclusion.
“Our guys need to recognize wholeheartedly that every night out you have to give 100 percent effort,” Slaughter said. “People are not concerned with the name on your chest, they want to win also.
“I don’t know if it’s an issue of playing down to the competition. I think the competition played well and were trying to win. I’m just not really sure our guys were focused on playing basketball period.”
And with another national game right around the corner, the only way a team can recuperate from an atrocious performance like that is in practice.
“We had a long talk as a team, that’s why it took us so long to come upstairs. It’s going to start off tomorrow in practice,” Okafor said.
The following day in the gym that showcased a “School of Champions” banner, the Dolphins willingly transformed into a track team as the first hour of practice was devoted solely to sprints and suicide drills. But not one player ran with an attitude or ill feelings as they knew this was not a punishment but a mere reminder of what happens when focus and discipline is lost.
And as the rack of basketballs slowly crept back onto the floor, the three seniors rallied amongst each other to get the team back into focus. But all great teams are led by great point guards, an area where the Dolphins are still working out the kinks, searching for that consistent harmonious chemistry.
“It’s a lot we have to work on. I think we have to get our chemistry in order right now,” Okafor acknowledged. “We have a new point guard in Anthony Mosley and we pretty much grow as the point guard grows. So we have to get him more comfortable playing with us and we have to get more comfortable playing with him.”
Slaughter agreed saying, “I think the thing for Anthony, as with all point guards, is to run the team and be in control of what we are doing on the floor and it is still an adjustment period for him with the results being somewhat mixed; some good and some not so good. But ultimately we know he has the ability to get done what needs to be done.”
As the team continued to prepare the Providence St. Mel junior transfer point guard, they also tighten up on defensive schemes that failed them in the mediocre win against Farragut, keeping in mind if the same mistakes were to occur in their next national matchup against St. Vincent-St. Mary (Ohio) -- former high school of four-time NBA Most Valuable Player, Miami Heat All-Star LeBron James -- in the City of Psalms Classic in Fort Meyers, Florida, the outcome could easily be a loss for the Dolphins. But their record over the years has shown a higher success rate when facing top-tier national teams, showing their ability to matchup easily with some of the best talent in the country.
“For some reason we always play better nationally against top-ranked teams,” Okafor said. “We just get amped up to play really good competition.”
And while being away for the holidays might be a burden for some, seasoned athletes like the Dolphins know it comes with the territory. The next few weeks will surely be a test of endurance, focus, and determination as they hit the road for three national tournaments, the aforementioned City of Psalms, the Les Schwab Invitational in Portland, Oregon, and the Cancer Research Classic at Wheeling University in Prime Prep, Texas with two of the three being featured on ESPN.
“We can’t wait to get out of Chicago and I think an opportunity to be together, live together, eat together, sleep together, play together without a great deal of support or given advice whether it be needed or unneeded is going to be good for our team. It’s going to give us an opportunity to grow and every year around this time we seem to get away from Chicago and we always seem to do a really good job when we come back to Chicago, reinvigorated and really dialed in and focused,” said coach Slaughter.
Reynolds echoed saying, “Last year we traveled on Christmas Day so this year it won’t be that much of a shock to be away from our families for Christmas. It is something that you have to do to succeed. We are all dialed in and ready to get rolling.”
Teams tend to build strong bonds while on the road, traveling and spending endless hours with each other. The chemistry formed off the court always seems to spill over to the performance on the court and sharing that comradeship is a very essential part of the puzzle.
“It is definitely the friendship,” Okafor said with a smile. “We all have a real close bond, like brothers.”
“Off the court we are a really close group,” Reynolds went on to say. “We spend a lot of time together in the hotels on the trips. So with these next few trips coming up we are going to particularly get a stronger bond and hopefully it will carry over to the court.”
Their brotherly-bond is something they may have to lean on once they hit the national stage. Representing the City of Chicago is a task in itself but their résumé is a tribute to what they are capable of. And coach Slaughter is confident his team will embody the essence of their hometown.
“I think anytime as a team, as a person, or as an institution you have an opportunity to leave your home and go someplace else, you want to do good first and foremost for yourself but more importantly for the city and the league that you represent. So from our standpoint we look at ourselves as ambassadors and I think every team in Chicago that leaves Chicago to play should,” coach Slaughter said.
“It’s an honor. I mean not every team in Chicago gets a chance to travel like we do,” Reynolds said in agreement. “The team and I are just ready to take advantage of it.”
Reynolds -- who recently committed to St. Louis University -- has been playing well thus far, averaging 19 points and five assists, showing the dramatic improvement he made to his game during the offseason. He vastly improved his on-the-ball defense as well as extending the range on his three-point shot. Reynolds is the type of player who comes to play night-in and night-out no matter who is standing opposite of him, whether it be a top-ranked team or a team who isn’t feared in the conference. He lays it all on the line without even the slightest hesitation.
“Miles is a competitor,” White reiterated. “He is always going to make sure he comes out to play every game. So that means whether it’s points, steals, or rebounds, anything we ask of Miles he is willing to do in order to win.”
Okafor agreed saying, “Miles is doing phenomenal. He has improved so much over the summer. His confidence is through the roof right now. I will definitely say he has been our best player for the start of the season. He is the engine to our team and we go as he goes. He comes out ready every night no matter who we're playing. He is the one guy who will go hard no matter what so he has definitely been our best player thus far. I’m hoping he keeps it up but I’m sure he will. He is definitely the hardest worker on this team.”
And while the easiest people to impress are teammates, the hardest figure to convince is usually the head coach, but Reynolds has already captivated Slaughter, making the expectation level of success rise every day.
“What we expect out of Miles in the past and moving forward is to be the energy. He is the guy who kind of drives as from an energy standpoint. He is a young man who has a very high basketball IQ and Miles wants to win. We believe that if Miles exhibits those kinds of characteristics on the floor, the rest of our players and team are going to follow him. So the expectation of him is to lead not only by example but also by his deeds and his words,” said Slaughter.
With the continued stellar play of Reynolds coupled with the dynamic low-post duo in Okafor and White, the Dolphins’ chances of winning the upcoming national tournaments are high. And with the sour taste left in their mouths after Monday night’s sub-par performance, it is safe to say the elite squad will come out with guns blazing.
Be sure to watch High School Lites at 11 p.m. every Friday night on Comcast SportsNet to see a new episode of DRIVE: Whitney Young Basketball, presented by Northern Illinois University. Also, check out the DRIVE: Whitney Young Basketball preps page for updates all season long here on CSNChicago.com.