Trips to the state basketball tournament can be elusive, so Garrick Phillips isn’t taking his University Titans’ third consecutive trip to the Tacoma Dome for the Class 3A boys basketball tournament for granted.
“It doesn’t get old, I can tell you that,” he said Wednesday night after his players checked into their rooms prior to Thursday’s 10:30 a.m. tournament opener with Eastside Catholic. “The fun thing about it is that each team you have is different, and the path to get here is always different.
“This team has had some major challenges and they’ve had to find some new ways to adapt and still find success. There are some great teams out there that didn’t get to make this trip. Teams like Ferris and Central Valley belong here because they’re both elite teams, but there are only so many state berths.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the Titans this season was learning to play without Brett Bailey. The 6-foot-6 wing with the deadly shot from outside graduated and took his game to San Diego, where he played in 31 games and started six for coach Bill Grier’s Toreros.
“That took some adapting,” the coach said. “Brett was such a big part of the program that it took a while to learn how to play without him.”
The 2013-14 U-Hi Titans are nothing if not resilient, and the team has found a way to keep winning basketball games.
“I’ve really enjoyed this team,” Phillips said. “It’s been interesting watching the leaders come forward with this team. We don’t really have one guy who jumps into the huddle and gets everyone fired up.
“Our leading scorer, Michael Isotalo, is one of those quiet, lead-by-example guys who would never be that rah-rah-guy leader on a bet. This team has evolved to the point where we don’t need that kind of guy. They follow the leaders they have and they’ve done a great job of doing that.”
That approach has allowed the Titans to adapt.
For example, when Kennedy Catholic schemed its defense to take away the Titans’ perimeter-shooting offense, they went inside to senior post Ben Kuiper, who answered the call with 17 points to lead the team to a state berth with a 68-59 win.
Phillips said playing in a state championship is about playing for and earning respect for Eastern Washington basketball.
“I coached over on that side of the state for nine years at Mount Si, so I know a little bit about what to expect,” he said. “I played high school basketball in Spokane, so I’ve always known how good the basketball is over here, but there are some over there who don’t know we exist.”
It doesn’t help that the two state tournament entries from Spokane had the toughest draw in the Class 3A tournament.
Shadle Park drew undefeated defending state champion Rainier Beach. University drew the 10:30 a.m. time slot against a team many in Western Washington consider the second-best team in the state: Eastside Catholic.
The Titans struggled against the Crusaders, not scoring in the first four minutes of each of the first three quarters, eventually falling, 53-39.
That sent them into a Friday morning, loser-out game with O’Dea, that U-Hi lost by two points.
Phillips had hoped this year would be different. Last year the team also lost their second game at state.
“This group has worked so hard to get here. We had a good summer season and they’ve worked hard to keep getting better all season long. They deserve it.”