After the huge 75-66 win over St. Rita Friday night, the Whitney Young Dolphins have finally attained the goal they have been held back from for the past three years: a sectional championship.
“It is our first sectional championship,” senior guard Miles Reynolds reiterated. “Everybody is excited. It was a hard game. St. Rita came out and played really hard. We were fortunate to have a great fourth quarter as. Always, the seniors stepped up. Jahlil gave me an earful at halftime, said I have to step up. I had a big second half. Paul (White) had a big second half. Jahlil (Okafor) played huge. It was just a great night.”
For the first half of play St. Rita had Young on their heels as they led the majority of the half, which coincidently resembled Wednesday night’s game against city rival Simeon. The Wolverines too were hot from the field and after a buzzer-beating dunk by junior guard Dennis “DJ” Williams, Young’s fate looked bleak as they headed to the locker room at the half.
“They weren’t missing any shots during the first half and pretty much the third quarter. It seemed like everything they shot went in,” Duke-bound center Jahlil Okafor recounted.
There was however one shining light during the first 16 minutes of play. Sophomore guard Rodney Herenton Jr. stepped up huge for the Dolphins, knocking down numerous three pointers and seemingly getting to the basket with ease, partially because of the box-and-one set Simeon head coach Rob Smith implemented on Reynolds, which surprised the squad and had them a bit perplexed. But Herenton took full advantage of the opportunity, something he has been preparing for all season.
“They threw something different at us with the box-and-one on Miles and when I saw they left me open I just knocked them down,” Herenton said with a bright smile. “I have been practicing everyday just for this time and I knocked them down.”
“He played phenomenal all game,” Okafor said of his teammate. “He hit a couple of big threes for us in the first half and that’s not really his game but we needed it and he was able to deliver it for us. But he really helped us. He has been starting for us pretty much all year and he played like he had a lot of experience tonight.”
Head coach Ty Slaughter described Herenton’s play in three words, “Unbelievable. Unbelievable. Unbelievable.
“Rodney is a guy who has been playing for us for the better part of the year,” he continued. “We’ve just been asking him to learn and do the things we ask him to do and it’s been a struggle for him at times but we have won some pretty games tough with him on the floor. We trust him. We have confidence in him and he has done it. Tonight was no different.”
But looking at the scoreboard while Simeon fans celebrated and cheerleaders performed energetic, aerobatic stunts with their team leading at the half, the emotional state of the Dolphins could have quickly taken a turn for the worst and falling for a fourth time in a row to the team that has held them back from the state playoffs could have easily been Wednesdays night’s outcome. But experience has become the best teacher for this now veteran Dolphins’ team and Okafor refused to have his senior year end on Simeon’s terms yet again.
“Just staying with it,” Okafor said. “I just told my guys to stay with it. They had to start missing eventually. We stayed together and we were able to come back.
“It feels great knowing that I get to play on Friday,” Okaofr said after the Wednesday night win. “We did have a little discussion. One of our assistant coaches said Simeon is considered our nemesis and we don’t want to think too much about this game as Simeon because it’s just another game. But I think the last couple of years we got hyped up into all that, wanting to beat Simeon. This year was all about wanting to get to Friday.”
And getting to Friday was exactly what the Dolphins did. The Marist High School gym was packed to capacity as the game sold out the morning of the tip-off. Arriving to the location was a feat in itself as traffic was backed up causing the commute to range in the two hour mark. Family, friends, and fans of the two schools were lined up outside of the doors anxiously waiting to be allowed in. But for many, that would be the only view they would see as people were turned away in droves due to the lack of having a ticket. Some even chose to stand outside and ask others for extra tickets as they walked by. It is safe to say this was the hottest ticket in the city Friday night.
The student sections resembled that of Okafor’s future stomping grounds. It seemed as though the students took a page out of the Cameron Crazies’ book as they were all dressed in their respective school colors. The atmosphere was full of excitement and anticipation as the music blasted and fans cheered.
As the game tipped off, St. Rita took an early lead that once again had the Dolphins back on their heels, taking an 18-13 lead to end the first quarter. But senior forward Paul White snubbed off the reality of this being his last time in a Whitney Young uniform as he led the Dolphins back to within one to end the first half of play. Being down at the half is unfortunately something the squad has become accustomed too and because of this, they remained unaffected by the one-point deficit.
“Just not getting rattled. That’s not our first time going into the half down like that, more times than we like but we always come back in the third quarter,” Okafor said. “But we had four seniors in the starting lineup. So I think we had a lot of experience in the starting lineup. I think that really helped us out a lot.”
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But in the midst of the Dolphins battling back in the second half of play, White fouled out midway through the fourth, which could have been a major turning point for the team. But at that moment, Reynolds and Okafor meet near the half court mark where they shared a few words of encouragement amongst themselves; the same pair that has been sharing the court together since their freshman year.
“We all just had to come together as usual,” Reynolds said. “Jahlil and I knew we had to come together as a duo now that the trio was gone when Paul fouled out. We were tired but we fought through it.”
And by the end of the night the trio of seniors were finally crowned sectional champions; a goal that has been weighing on them since their first days at Whitney Young.
“It’s a great feeling. It’s my first time making it this far, winning a sectional championship,” Okafor said.
“It means a lot. We have been playing together a long time and it has been our dream to win a state championship. So hopefully we can get that dream accomplished.”
The Dolphins’ next test will be Tuesday night at Chicago State against Loyola Academy at 7 p.m. The Ramblers are the last obstacle standing in the way of their state championship dreams and Okafor is ready for the challenge.
“I can’t wait for Tuesday. You know it’s the last game here before we get to state. I just have to get my teammates ready and focused and let them know Tuesday is what our eyes are focused on right now,” he said.
And in true winner’s fashion, despite the Friday night win being the first sectional title, Reynolds has yet to be satisfied.
“We haven’t really done anything yet. I mean it’s a great accomplishment but we want more.”