The March 4 Regional Semifinal 76-44 blowout win over Reavis High School and the 73-60 Regional Final win against De La Salle High School were both “expected” from the Whitney Young Dolphins and fans alike, seeing that the squad has made it to the sectional finals three years in a row under the leadership of senior trio Jahlil Okafor, Paul White, and Miles Reynolds, according to head coach Ty Slaughter. So it’s safe to say the two “big” wins didn’t bring about any unfamiliar emotions from either the coaching staff or players.
“Well really there aren’t any emotions. We have been in the regionals the last six years so the expectations that we would win the regionals were there. I really want to thank our guys for the hard pounding three quarters that we played good. We had some moments when we relaxed and we kind of got caught up in that little brush up out there but we kind of re-stabilized ourselves and got back after it,” Slaughter said speaking of the small altercation between Reynolds, White, and De La Salle’s Tyler Lewis, which resulted in a personal and technical foul against the aforementioned Lewis and a personal foul against White.
“But again, our expectation was for us to win the regional. And as I’ve said all year long, we have played the toughest schedule; we’ve played some of the best teams across this country so nothing that people will do to us will be something we haven’t seen,” he went on to say.
However, it was a night full of emotions for sophomore guard Skylar Nash who transferred from De La Salle after just his freshman year. Late in the fourth quarter, Nash put down an incredible slam dunk that triggered excitement in both student fan sections, as playful boos rang throughout the Meteors’ side of the gym.
“I mean I had a good year at De La Salle but I definitely had some extra motivation to kind of get one in there at the end,” Nash said with a smile. “But in the end it is all about getting the win and trying to move forward.”
During the game, White -- still recovering from a groin injury -- was inadvertently hit in the face while attempting to block a shot late in the third quarter, right in the midst of an attempted Meteors’ comeback.
“It was a very fast-paced game. I ended up trying to stop the person on offense going up for a layup and unfortunately I jumped straight up and the offensive man’s arm came straight down and hit me in my lip. They ended up calling the foul on me so it was a lose-lose situation for me,” White explained.
De La Salle would eventually bring the game within 12 after coach Slaughter substituted out the seniors, allowing them to make their final home-court walk to the bench.
“It was great,” Okafor recounted. “It was kind of crazy. I mean I remember just being a freshman like it was yesterday but it is kind of surreal. I don’t really realize that this is my last game. I just focused on a state championship. So it wasn’t any tears or nothing like that falling but I’m sure when it is all said and done, and I’m fortunate enough to get a state championship, I might drop a tear or two.”
And with all those emotions in mind coupled with the underlying truth that this could have been their last game, the mentality of the team is solely focused on winning a state championship.
“Our mindset is a state championship and we know we have to do that one game at a time,” the Duke-bound center said. “We all realized that that game we just played could have been our last time playing and that’s how we played. We played with a sense of urgency and we are not taking anybody for granted. We have five more games now, one game at a time, and everybody on this this team is focused on one thing and that is to win a state championship.”
But before their state championship dreams are realized, the challenge of making it past rival Simeon -- who has knocked them out of the sectional finals three years in a row -- will come to a head in the Sectional Semifinal matchup on March 12 at Marist High School at 7 p.m.
“Simeon is a real good team that has been really successful these last couple of years,” White said. “They have a good coaching staff with a great young team so I’m not surprised they ended up pulling out that win. So now we have to come back into practice, learn the game plan, and just go out there and play.”
Despite being put out of the running for the title the past three years by the Wolverines, Coach Slaughter isn’t making any special preparations Wednesday night's matchup saying, “That was in the past and there’s nothing we can do if we revisit the past. We can’t live in the past. All we can do is live in the present. And the present means they are a good basketball team with a good coach who has tremendous history and we are a good team with a not so good coach but we will see what we can do.
“I mean Simeon is Simeon and they are still the champs. Until someone knocks them off they are always going to be the champs. Our challenge is to be more concerned about what we do than what Simeon does,” he continued.
White chimed in with: “Simeon has a championship spirit. Those players were around when that winning was going on so it’s not like they are complete strangers to being state champions as well as city champions. Simeon, like I said, is a very successful program so we have to go out there and play.”
And in spite of this being the first year Nash will face Simeon in a Dolphins’ uniform, he takes full ownership of the history between the teams saying, “I mean we just want to end the streak of losing against them. We just want to play the right way, make sure we take good shots, and get it in there to the big fella. Just keep on going.”
Okafor -- who is consistently referred to as “the big fella” or “big man in the middle” -- was unaware of next week’s matchup with Simeon immediately following the win against De La Salle but was clearly conscious of the fact that whomever they faced, the team would not make the mistake of overlooking any opponent, as the next game could potentially be his last.
“We don’t know who we play yet… maybe Simeon,” Okafor unknowingly said. “But whoever we play we can’t take anybody lightly and come into the next game with the same attitude. It could be our last time playing, my last time playing high school basketball ever so I’m just going to do all I can and my teammates will also so we can get a win.”
And as the Dolphins take this victory with a grain a salt, the next two weeks will define them as a team and everything they have put into the season thus far because at the end of the day fans rarely remember who came in second place.
“It’s one game at a time, seven games hopefully in a row for us,” Slaughter said.