The hopeful run to an undefeated 2014 season came to an end Sunday night at the Nike Extravaganza in Santa Ana, California as the Whitney Young Dolphins fell to All-American Stanley Johnson and the Mater Dei Monarchs in a double-digit 69-57 loss. The first half was brutal for Duke-bound center Jahlil Okafor as he was held to just four points. And according to Monarchs’ center M.J. Cage that statistic was precisely the goal.
"We just wanted to make sure he couldn't get the ball. We were double- and triple-teaming him. If he can't get the ball he can't score," Cage, who is just a sophomore, said in a recent media report.
Senior point guard Miles Reynolds, however, stepped up big for the Dolphins as he nailed five three pointers and one free throw giving the squad a 16-15 lead after the first quarter. But the 6-foot-10 senior Okafor caught fire in the second half, as he pushed his point total to 13 after a creative underhand shot and knocking down the free throw for the and-1 finish at the charity stripe, giving the Dolphins a 42-41 lead. That was the last time the team would take the lead as Monarchs’ Johnson took the brunt of the weight during an 11-2 run mid-way through the third. And after consecutive plays in the fourth, the Monarchs ended the Dolphins undefeated season dreams.
"Pretty much every team's game plan is to double and triple me in the zone. In the first half Miles played phenomenal and that kept us in the game. I'm fine just trying to rebound," Okafor said in a media report following the loss.
“Mater Dei was a great team and in their gym it is very hard to beat them,” he continued. “Their last loss was in 2009, which is no excuse from us. They were just better than us that night.”
But as the Dolphins made the trip back to the bitter temperatures of the Midwest, there was one thing that would raise their somber spirits: senior night on February 5 against Schurz for the first-round of the CPS City Playoffs.
The gym was decorated with orange and blue balloons that lined the baseline mats against the far wall, and the railings of the seemingly never-ending bleachers were filled with festive, colored streamers. The walls were jam-packed with signage made by students depicting the numbered jerseys of all the seniors. The music was blasting with all the latest Hip-Hop joints as the cheerleaders practiced for the halftime performance. And as the seniors lined up with their parents for their final introduction as Dolphins, they were met at half court with framed jerseys and an attached plaque with their respective schools, season averages, and individual accomplishments achieved during their four-year career.
#22 center Jahlil Okafor: Co-Captain (Duke University); 27.8 ppg, 13.6 rpg; Three-time Gold Medalist with USA Basketball; 2012 MVP FIBA U/17 World Championship; 2013 All World Team U/19 World Championship; 2013 Varsity City Champion; 2014 Nike Hoop Basketball Team Member; 2014 McDonald’s All-American; Considered #1 Player in Class of 2014 (ESPN, Rivals, Scout.com)
#13 forward Paul White: Co-Captain (Georgetown University); 18.2 ppg, 8.4 rpg; 2013 Varsity City Champion; #34 Player in Class of 2014 (ESPN); 2014 McDonald’s All-American Nominee; USA Basketball Developmental National Team
#3 guard Miles Reynolds: Co-Captain (St. Louis University); 16.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg; 2012 City of Palms Hometown Hero Award Winner and All-Tournament Team Member; 2013 Varsity City Champion; 2014 McDonald’s All-American Nominee
#2 shooting guard Erwin Henry: 6.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg; 2011 Sophomore City Champion; 2013 Varsity City Champion
#4 shooting guard Joseph Luzadder: 1.8 ppg, 2.6 rpg; 2013 Varsity City Champion; President’s Scholar (GPA 4.75+)
Okafor -- who was a bit emotional as he subbed out of the game in the third quarter, slapping five with all his teammates and giving hugs to each of the coaches, one of which was his father -- felt this night was like a dream, a thought that was just too hard to grasp.
“It is kind of surreal to me, to realize that I am a senior now and that is my last home game here as a Dolphin. And just going back to my freshman year when we had guys like Luke Hager and Sam Thompson and just realizing how much they appreciated Whitney Young and seeing their senior night, it’s kind of odd to know that I am in the same position as they were at one point. It went by so fast. You know everybody tells you how fast high school is going to go by but you kind of have to see it for yourself to actually believe it. But it is hard to believe that that was my last home game,” he said after the 71-54 victory.
Head coach Ty Slaughter who has coached the trio of seniors since their freshman year made light of the situation by cracking a humorous joke but believes this group will go on to do phenomenal things in the future.
“It’s extremely bittersweet. We have had them for four years. They have been here and have been loyal, quality young people. You are always happy to see people go on and do good things. It’s kind of like your mother-in-law driving off a cliff in your brand new car,” he said mockingly. “You are happy but you are sad. They have to leave but we think they are leaving better than when they got here. And as a result, they have left this program far better than what it was before.”
Reynolds echoed saying, “I didn’t really have any nerves. It was just exciting for me to know that all my hard work has paid off in this Whitney Young program. It was a bittersweet moment knowing this was my last time in this gym playing in front of our home crowd. But I’m moving on to the next level soon so it was just a bittersweet moment.”
The night for White however was viewed from the bench due to a previous lower-body injury he sustained Monday night against the Monarchs. But despite only playing for the first play of the first quarter, he was thankful he was able to share that final moment with the people that mattered the most: his brothers.
“Well tonight it was very special for us seniors, me, Miles, Erwin Henry, Jahlil, Joe. These are all people that I have been with for four years now. And we knew this night was going to be very special for each of us. So even with me, the little time that I did play still meant a lot to me,” he reiterated.
White did reassure however that he would suit up for the Sunday night, second-round city playoff game.
“Most definitely. I just basically had a bad fall on Monday against North Lawndale. So the coaches just wanted to rest me for this game. But the next game against either CVS or DuSable, I’m pretty sure I will be suiting up.”
Okafor, Reynolds, and White have played as a unit for the majority of their playing careers, dating back to their childhood for the latter two. And as they begin to embark on the next chapter of their careers, they are forever grateful for the time they have shared together, vowing to always remain best friends.
“Yea those are my brothers,” Okafor said. “We have known each other since like seventh or eighth grade. We have played on the same team since we were in eighth grade when we went down to Orlando, Florida and got second place in nationals. We always had the idea to go to Whitney Young and try to dominate and win some city and state championships. We still haven’t won the state championship yet but that is the goal that we want to do this year. And even when we part ways this year, we are still going to be brothers and I’m pretty sure I will talk to them just about every day. Those will be my brothers hopefully for the rest of my life.”
Reynolds chimed in saying; “I’ve known Paul pretty much all my life and Jahlil since seventh or eighth grade so these are like my best friends. They are like my brothers. I trust them with everything. It is going to be hard not having them on the court with me next year. I will just need to make the adjustments to go on and play without them.”
But before they move on to collegiate ambitions, there is still work to be done in the next six weeks. And after the blowout win Wednesday night, expectations on moving further into the city playoffs are high.
“Well I think we feel good about it,” coach Slaughter said with confidence. “We won the City Championship last year. I think there are some formidable teams in our city as always. But I think given what we have and the opportunities that we have been given like our travels over the year and from the teams that we have played, we understand what competition is and we understand what it means to fight. So we feel good about the prospects of us being able to do it again.”
With their sheer determination and desire to repeat, the Dolphins chances of taking home yet another city title is likely. And with the high school careers of the trio of seniors slowly but surely coming to an end fueling the fire, one can only imagine how hard these Dolphins will play come Sunday night and so on. There is only one thing that can stop their dreams from coming true: the reflection they see in the mirror every day.