The Whitney Young Dolphins remain undefeated in 2014 -- a year dubbed “The Year of Greatness” by head coach Ty Slaughter and Duke-bound center Jahlil Okafor -- after three hard-fought games in just six days. The first test came on January 25 as they faced a powerful Southwind squad out of Memphis, Tennessee. The Dolphins slid by with a 69-68 victory, pushing their overall record to 14-4, 7-0 in 2014.
But Wednesday night’s game against conference red-west rival Marshall pushed the Dolphins back on their heels even though they were both mentally and physically well-prepared for the Commandos aggressive style of play.
“Well, coming into Marshall it is always going to be a hostile environment,” senior forward Paul White said. “They are a team that wants to win just like us. We knew what we were coming into. We knew Marshall really wanted to win this game as well as we did and especially since it was their senior night. So we are all good. We came in here, we stuck it out and we got a win.”
The Dolphins, however, proved why they were one of the top teams in the nation as they blew the lead to double digits midway through the fourth quarter. As the clock wound down and all hope for the Commandos slipped away, the game seemingly became a battle ground filled with hard-hitting fouls and even slaps across the face with the Dolphins being on the receiving end. This resulted in words being exchanged between the two teams, which elevated the intensity of the fans even more than the players, making the noise in the gym ear-piercing. As the teams lined up to shake hands, Marshall assistant coaches further reiterated that there would be no fighting on their watch as the Dolphins slowly proceeded through the line.
[RELATED: Young reassures national ranking]
“We just stayed together and kept our heads together,” Okafor stated. “I think one of their kids isn’t allowed to play in the next game and that is something that we didn’t want to have to be under the same circumstances. So Paul and I just kept huddling the guys telling them that we have to keep our heads and let’s just get out of the gym with the win.
“A lot of adversity during the game,” he recounted. “In the first half we were only up by eight and then a few hard fouls on both ends of the floor but we just stayed together. As the game progressed the lead just got bigger and bigger.”
Behind the phenomenal play of Georgetown-bound White and through the composure exhibited on the court down the stretch, the Dolphins walked out with a big win, 75-57. Okafor credited the victory to White, his long-time friend, saying, “… I think Paul White got off to a really good start and it’s what he’s been doing all season. So he really picked us up in the first half and second half also.”
White chimed in with, “Well in the first half I just wanted to be aggressive because I knew Marshall was going to be aggressive. And in order to help my team in that position, knowing they were going to be aggressive, we had to go against theirs. But later on in the second half I just let my team do the talking for me. Jahlil was out there scoring at will. Miles [Reynolds] was out there putting in work so we were all good.”
Reynolds, who has been called the “heart and soul of this team” by coach Slaughter earned the Sun Times Athlete of the Week for his many accomplishments during the season, a highlight being the outstanding 26-point performance and being named the game’s MVP against the aforementioned Southwind victory at the Penny Hardaway Hall of Fame Hoop Hall Classic in Tennessee.
But just a day later, the Dolphins were back on the court as they faced North Lawndale for a scheduled makeup game due to a weather cancellation earlier in the week. Behind the play of both Okafor and White, Slaughter had little to complain about in the first half of play as the Dolphins took a 34-18 lead at halftime. But the game took a dramatic turn for the worse during the second half of play as the Phoenix battled back to bring the game within eight. Shortly thereafter to everyone’s surprise, the lights suddenly started to flicker before the entire gym went pitch black. With the music from the DJ’s booth blasting and only the light from the scoreboard displaying the remaining 5:44 left in play with the Dolphins leading 52-40 lighting the court, the fans became hostile which led to a brief scuffle in the stands.
“We got off to a really good start. Towards the end we got a little sloppy. The lights went out, the clocks went out and we kind of lost our focus,” Okafor said.
But after a ten-minute delay and a more noticeable police presence, the game resumed with the Dolphins regaining focus, managing to pull out the 64-55 win.
“We got sped up [offensively],” junior point guard Anthony Mosley admitted. “North Lawndale has also been known for their defense. When they trap, they trap hard. I mean I give them credit, they always trap hard but we just overcame it in the end.”
Mosley, who was just in his second game back due to a pre-existing ankle injury that resurfaced, didn’t allow his absence to affect his rhythm and with the consistent reassuring words from teammates, he played as if he never missed a beat.
“Well us playing Marshall is kind of a good thing for me because I am friends with a lot of those people. So it wasn’t like it was unfamiliar territory for me. So I felt like I was already comfortable. And my team had my back. Paul and Jahlil and the rest of my team continued to encourage me to keep doing what I’ve been doing,” he reiterated.
“I feel a lot better. Therapy made my ankle a lot stronger. Also this injury made me see what I needed to work on and things our team need.”
Earlier in the week, the McDonald’s All-American selections were made and, to no ones surprise, No. 1 prospect Jahlil Okafor was chosen to participate in the 37th annual McDonald’s All-American game on April 2 at the United Center where he hopes to lead the West to victory against the No. 2 prospect, Curie’s big man-in-the-middle, Cliff Alexander and future Blue Devil teammate and best friend Tyus Jones. But in the grand scheme of things, Okafor is just proud that he was even considered to be amongst some of the best who have ever played the game he has grown to love.
“I’m just happy right now, extremely happy,” Okafor said with a big smile. “That is any high school basketball players goal, to be a McDonald’s All-American. That is the exclamation point to my high school season come April. And just to be in the same lime light as some of those players like Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, the list goes on and on. And just to be considered in that same lime light is just a humbling feeling.”
Senior guard Erwin Henry and Mosley were both happy to hear of the news. But were not at all surprised at the All-American nod.
“Man, he is my best friend. I love him to death. I congratulated him. We went out to lunch and talked about it. I mean I knew he was going to make it. Everybody knew he was going to make it. He is the No. 1 player in the nation,” Henry said with a friendly smirk.
Mosley echoed saying, “I am extremely proud of Jahlil. I have never met anyone that was a McDonald’s All-American so this was a first, and I feel like he deserves it.”
Come April, Henry made it clear the team would be in attendance showing their support.
“Of course. Everybody is going to be there. I know I am going to be there. I love him to death,” he said.
But before all the cheers and plays filled with jaw-dropping slam dunks can take place, the Dolphins are off to Santa Ana, California to face the No. 1 team in the nation: Mater Dei High School. And even though the stakes are high, the team believes they are ready to put the mistakes made in the previous games during the week to rest and once again prove their national dominance.
“I’m looking forward to playing Mater Dei at Mater Dei,” Okafor said. “It is going to be a hostile environment. I think it is going to be one of the toughest games of the season if not the toughest. We are playing against a really tough player in Stanley Johnson who is also a McDonald’s All-American and is actually on my McDonald’s All-American team and has been on my team for the past two years for the USA team. I am really close with him and I am looking forward to battling with him in his hometown.”
“Well they are the No. 1 team and that is the main thing I am looking forward to,” Mosley stated. “If we win this game, it could put us back to where we started at the beginning of season.”
Staying true to his colorful character, Henry jokingly said, “Oh it's Cali man, I’m trying to go to Roscoe’s,” but ended the statement with a stamp of what could be the foreseeable future.
“I just want to bring home the win.”
Update: Young fell to Mater Dei 69-57. Okafor finished with a team-high 21 points.