Wednesday was a work day in the University High gym.
The Titans, one day after dispatching West Valley-Yakima, 66-47, in a Class 3A regional play-in game, took to the practice court to prepare for Friday night’s regional showdown with Kennewick in Richland. And the workout was basic, blue-collar stuff.
That’s how U-Hi has attacked every day this season. The team has work to do and everyone packs a lunch and gets to work.
“I think it has a lot to do with the fact that we have so many seniors on this team,” senior point guard Jared Miller said. “We got upset a year ago and had to sit and watch the playoffs instead of reaching our goal and getting to state ourselves. That’s not any fun at all. So I think we all dedicated ourselves to doing everything we can this year to make it to state and go as far as we can go there.”
A win against Kennewick and the Titans could pack their bags for Tacoma and the state tournament.
Miller was key in getting past the Rams on Tuesday, drilling five 3-pointers and posting a season-high 25 points. The hot-shooting night gives Miller something he has struggled to have this season: confidence in his shots.
The senior was hot from the start Tuesday, drilling a pair of 3-pointers in the opening minutes of the game.
“I wasn’t surprised by that at all,” coach Garrick Phillips said. “The thought that went through my mind, seriously, was ‘Finally!’ Jared has done a lot for this team this year. He has a desire to go on and play beyond high school. We talked about that together and we decided that his best chance to do that is to be a point guard, so he’s worked very hard on his ball handling skills and his passing skills and he’s made great strides there.
“But even with all that work, bottom line, Jared is a shooter. And he can be very streaky when he’s on.”
Still, Miller insists, he’s not looking to take over a game. Teammates Brett Bailey and Zech Martin have been the Titans’ go-to offensive forces this season and Miller is perfectly happy feeding them. But if defenses overlook the 6-foot point guard, beware.
“I think that’s what happened – West Valley scouted us and they figured all they had to do was stop Brett and Zech,” Martin said. “You really can’t do that against us because we have a lot of guys who can score. You can’t beat us that way.”
Through January, Miller rarely cracked double figures in scoring but racked up solid totals for assists.
“I just couldn’t find that confidence you need,” he said. “If I missed my first couple shots, I would stop looking to shoot. We have other guys who can score.
“The bottom line for me is that we win games. That’s what this season is all about.”
“That’s been this team’s philosophy all year long,” Phillips agreed. “As a team, they’re totally focused on winning and their individual numbers don’t matter to them.”
Wednesday the Titans worked on their game strategy for Kennewick, and Phillips, for one, liked the way the two teams match up.
“I think athletically we’re pretty similar,” he said. “I do think, though, that we are a little more balanced in what we can do than they are.”
And if Miller’s 25-point night throws a new scare into Kennewick, so much the better, he added.
Phillips broke his squad into three four-man units to work on parts of his strategy for Kennewick, players locked in and concentrated in making every play count. No one slacked off on defense and, if someone missed an assignment on a play, teammates would assess push-ups as a reminder to do better next time.
It’s a strategy Phillips borrowed from the U-Hi wrestling program.
In wrestling, the key to making each athlete better is to have a strong work-out partner pushing hard every day in practice.
“Wrestling has understood that for a long time and I don’t think basketball has completely grasped that idea yet,” Phillips said. “That’s what we’ve tried to do every day. I told someone earlier this year that our players have to play harder in practice than they’ve had to play in some of our games because we go hard after each other every day on the practice court.
“We’re here to make everyone better and you do that by pushing each other hard to get better. These players understand that and they appreciate that.”
In many ways, Phillips has created a new normal since arriving at University six years ago from Mount Si in Snoqualmie, Wash.
“I haven’t really thought about it, but I would have to say that, yes, this is what we set out to build when I got here,” he said. “But I’m such a competitor that I don’t see it in those terms. I’m always looking for ways to get better and I think there are always ways to make yourself stronger.
“But I can say that I am incredibly proud of each and every young man that I’ve had in the program this year. I’m proud of how hard they’ve worked, how much progress they’ve made and what they’ve accomplished this year.”