The dominant Whitney Young Dolphins made history this past weekend despite an unexpectedly close 46-44 victory over the Benet Redwings in the State Championship game at the Peoria Civic Center, making Young the first school in IHSA Class 4A State history to have both the boys and girls basketball team win a state title in the same season, a feat that has only been accomplished twice before.
“I think we have a chance to make history this Friday and Saturday by the girls winning the 4A championship and the boys’ team hopefully winning,” Young’s principal, Dr. Joyce Kenner, said after the Dolphins’ pep rally Thursday morning, seemingly predicting what was going to transpire the coming Saturday night. “Our academic decathlon team won state. So we’ve blended academics and athletics together for the nation to see that that can be done at any school if you just put the effort into what you are doing.”
Young’s girls’ basketball coach, Corry Irvin who has four State titles of her own, was in attendance for the State Championship game Saturday night and said, “I am very proud of the program as a whole. We have made history tonight and it is a wonderful feeling. It was important for the team and me to make the trip down to Peoria to support the guys and be here for the celebrations. This really elevates the program to another level.
“We have the best principal in the world. She always comes out to support her students in everything they do,” she went on to say. “Our athletic director Chris Cassidy is the best too. He is always showing his support and we love him for that. This was a great day for Whitney Young and Whitney Young basketball.”
“It’s a big deal.” Jahlil Okafor said of both the girls and boys winning a state title. “We had a pep rally and Dr. Kenner said that would be the first time anyone has ever done that at Whitney Young. So we have made history. It says a lot about our program.”
The road to Peoria’s center stage was not an easy one however, going back to the tough sectional games against city rival Simeon (72-64) and the agile St. Rita Mustangs (75-66) earlier this month where the heady Dolphins were put back on their heels, having to fight back from behind in both matchups. But just as it has been all season, it was the unrelenting leadership of the senior trio in Duke-bound, All-American Okafor, Georgetown signee Paul White, and St. Louis recruit Miles Reynolds that kept the Dolphins afloat in spite of the near close calls. And just as head coach Ty Slaughter has been preaching since the beginning of the season, the experience they gained playing a national schedule -- going up against arguably some of the best competition in the country -- has prepared them for this moment right now.
“But I think one of the things I have been trying to tell you guys through this journey, through the entire year is this team and these guys that we see on this roster are the best and the brightest that play the game. We played the toughest schedule. We played against the best players. We have the best player in the country on our team. And as a result of it, none of these things really seem to affect us. No matter what people do to us or attempt to do to us, all these young people do is appear and prevail. And that’s just what it is,” Slaughter said.
The highly-anticipated Friday night matchup against sharp-shooting, top junior guard Jalen Brunson and the Stevenson Patriots was one for the ages as records were broken and controversy centered around one alleged inappropriate gesture. With less than a minute remaining in the contest, Stevenson guard Jalen Brunson threw his hands up in frustration after a referee waved off an And-1 three at a pivotal moment in the game. And at that precise moment a photographer captured an image that simply took on a life of its own later that evening once the photo was posted on Twitter, gaining 581 retweets and counting. But the fiasco was finally put to rest the following day once the third place game started as Stevenson took on Edwardsville with Brunson on the floor despite circulating rumors of a threatened suspension.
And in the semifinal matchup against Young, Brunson resurfaced with a vengeance, going for an astonishing 56 points on the night, breaking the IHSA individual point record previously set at 55.
This however was not enough to stop the Dolphins as Okafor went for 33 points despite the double and triple teaming he faced throughout the night.
“I think we have to commend Stevenson and Jalen in particular for an incredibly gallant effort out there,” Slaughter said in the postgame press conference. “They are a great basketball team and we are going to hear a lot from them in the upcoming year.
“Our road has been extremely arduous and at the end of the day all we seemed to have done is travel it unscathed. Now we have won an opportunity to play for the state championship and I am glad to be playing for the state championship with these three guys here.”
“It was a great atmosphere,” Okafor said. “All of their fans came out. All of our fans came out. It was a hard-fought game and I’m happy that my team came out on top.”
And just 24 hours later, the squad suited up for perhaps the most important game in their careers to date: the state championship matchup against a sharp-shooting Benet team.
The fan section for the Redwings was packed as students stood on their feet for the entire game dressed in all black while chanting loudly in unison, resembling the Cameron Crazies of Duke University. And though the Dolphins’ crowd was much smaller than Benet’s, their uplifting vibes too rang feverishly throughout the arena.
But despite Benet’s encouraging cheers, the Redwings went cold from the three-point line, shooting a pedestrian 11 percent after two quarters of play. Even Redwings’ standout senior, Sean O’Mara, who finished with eight points and eight rebounds, couldn’t find a rhythm as the squad headed into the halftime break. The Dolphins however were riding high after shooting an above average 50 percent from three-point land and going 11-for-22 from the field.
“He has done it all year,” Okafor said of Reynolds who came out hot from the three in the game’s early minutes. “Whenever people send the double team to me, he is always the one who steps up, him and Paul.”
But as the game rolled on, the Dolphins’ hot hand cooled off while the Redwings refused to go down without a fight, bringing the game within eight with 2:25 remaining in the fourth.
“Before when we came out of the timeout, I started tearing up and Paul was like come on man it’s not over yet,” Okafor recounted.
“But not for one second did I think we were going to lose. We missed a couple of free throws and that made me a little nervous, I will say that,” Okafor went on to say.
White however took away that nervousness as he knocked down two free throws from the charity stripe with 19 seconds left on the clock, pushing the lead to four before Benet’s Liam Nelligan drove the length of the court for a layup at the buzzer. The Dolphins’ cheers were heard immediately as Young was finally crowned State Champions after three years of falling short to city rival Simeon.
“It has just been crazy. All the things we have been through the last four years; losing the last two seasons to Simeon. It is great to finally be on top,” Reynolds said with a vast amount of excitement in his voice.
“It is kind of a bittersweet feeling,” Okafor said of this being the last game amongst teammates whom he has played with for the past five years. “But I am just so happy it is over and I can finally say I am a state champion.”
Senior trio -- as they have been referred to all season -- Jahlil Okafor, Miles Reynolds, and Paul White will be parting ways come fall as they all head off to their respective universities. But in the midst of the moments of winning a state title, amongst whom they refer to as brothers, was an indescribable, over-whelming feeling.
“Right now I am trying not to cry,” White said in an emotional tone. “Right now I am smiling as much as I can. This is the last game I am going to have with the people that I have played with since eighth grade. This is an emotional time but right now I am enjoying it.
“It’s crazy. You know the journey starts back in eighth grade playing with the Ferrari team. But right now we are enjoying this moment. The losses, the trials and tribulations are all worth it right now because we are able to say we are State Champions.”
Reynolds, who was brought to tears while he waited for his State Champion medal, said, “It is crazy. We are all going off to big time universities hoping to win an NCAA championship next year so it is just great to get the state championship under our belts. We have two city titles. We have a state title. We came close in the national but to be together since eighth grade is crazy.”
I was struggling to contain my emotions but this was something I will never forget. I'm proud to be a Dolphin pic.twitter.com/tbGEH5D88k— Miles Reynolds (@MilesReyRey3) March 23, 2014
Coach Slaughter has believed in his team all season and once he finally raised the Championship trophy, his words were simple, “Benet is a good ball club. They wanted to win and they stayed with it. But at the end of the day my guys prevailed.”
Coach Ty with the CHAMPIONSHIP trophy pic.twitter.com/SD7EBz1vSo— Preps Talk CSN (@PrepsTalkCSN) March 23, 2014
The day following the win, the Dolphins returned to Chicago to find family, friends, and fans at their home gym, gathering one final time to pay tribute to the team after their historic win.
“When I decided in eighth grade that I wanted to attend Whitney Young as a student-athlete, one of my main goals was to win a state championship,” Okafor said as he addressed the crowd from the podium. “I failed three times, freshman, sophomore, and junior year, and I pretty much felt like if I didn’t win state this year then my high school career would be incomplete. It meant everything to me.
“It’s so weird to say that you are the best at what you do and for us to be able to say we are the best team in Illinois is a great feeling,” he continued. “We worked so hard every day and it was important for us to celebrate because it was the last time we would have to celebrate together.”
Coach Slaughter added to the celebration after revealing his coaching selection into the Jordan Brand Classic All-Star game on April 18 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.
“I’ve been trying to keep this a secret for some time now but I feel this is finally the right time. I have been selected as a coach in the Jordan game next month,” Slaughter swiftly said towards the end of his speech.
The season dubbed the “Year of Greatness” for the Dolphins has been full of ups and downs, tears and laughter, and the feat of finally realizing a goal that has been wavering in the balance for three long years. The seniors have been together since they were just 13 years old and as they take the next step on a path that is unknown, the experience they have gained thus far is sure to play in their favor. Reynolds heads off to St. Louis University, while White makes a new home at Georgetown leaving All-American Jahlil Okafor set to do immense things under head coach Mike Krzyzewski at Duke University. And even with their departure from one another right around the corner, the historic legacy they have left will forever live on in their hearts and more importantly the record books.
“All we ever thought about was leaving a legacy,” White said as he addressed the media for the final time on Young’s home court Sunday afternoon.