Eastern Washington will be well represented across all classifications when state basketball tournaments begin Wednesday , as 26 teams from this half of the state chase championships.
But the area is perhaps nowhere better represented than the state’s highest classes.
The defending 4A champions for boys and girls both call the Greater Spokane League home: Gonzaga Prep’s boys and Central Valley’s girls.
G-Prep (22-2) is seeded No. 2 in the boys bracket, while Lewis and Clark and Central Valley hold the third and fourth seeds, respectively, in the girls tourney.
In the 3A tournaments, Mt. Spokane boys and girls both enter play as No. 2 seeds.
Any of the five could win a title.
Watson puts focus on one more run
Not 10 minutes after G-Prep won the 2018 4A championship at the Tacoma Dome, then-sophomore Liam Lloyd was already taking about a title defense.
“I just want another one,” Lloyd said. “I want to go get it next year.”
Next year has arrived.
It’s a dramatically different roster than the one that outlasted McDonald’s All-American Jaden McDaniels and Federal Way 54-52 to finish a perfect season.
Sam Lockett and Devin Culp graduated and moved on to Division I football – Lockett at Utah State and Culp at Washington – and inside presence Jamaari Jones has missed all of football and basketball season recovering from a knee injury sustained during summer ball.
But the big guy is back.
Anton Watson, the two-time GSL player of the year and reigning state tournament and Associated Press player of the year, will lead the Bullpups – as he has all season – in their title defense in Tacoma.
It’s his last run as a high-schooler before joining Gonzaga University in the fall – going from one of the best prep teams in the state to one of the most prestigious college programs in the nation.
Watson echoed Lloyd’s comments or repeating earlier this season.
“I want to do it again. I want to do all that again,” Watson said in November after practice in G-Prep’s shiny new gymnasium. “That’s my goal this year, is to repeat all that and win another state championship.”
Even though the Bullpups lost several key pieces off last year’s team, they are still experienced and deep, with nine seniors and one junior – Lloyd –who is mulling D-I options.
G-Prep’s two losses this season came in national tournaments, a two-point decision to Bishop Gorman of Las Vegas in the Hoophall West Invitational in Phoenix on Dec. 8 and a five-point loss to Florida’s University School – led by 6-foot-10 Duke recruit Vernon Carey Jr.
Watson became the fifth-highest scorer in GSL games this season. His coach, Matty McIntyre, said even more than Watson’s physical gifts, it’s his mental game that places him in such high regard.
“I think, first, you have to look at his intelligence – his basketball IQ,” McIntyre said. “He is one of the smartest players I’ve ever coached. It seems like he sees the game, in all areas, a few seconds earlier than everyone else.
“He has a knack for understanding the flow of the game and where there’s opportunities to score.”
But McIntyre is quick to say he doesn’t have a one-man team.
“Let’s make no mistake about it – Anton makes this thing go, but we’ve got guys that can do some things on both ends,” he said.
Watson fills up the scoresheet, averaging 21.6 points, 7.1 rebounds and 3.8 assists, attesting to McIntyre’s testimony of how much a team player Watson is.
“Anton is so good, so unselfish, he’s going to find the open guy,” McIntyre said Saturday after a 65-47 win over Curtis in a state regional – a game in which he had 17 points, nine rebounds and seven blocked shots.
“In the last couple of games, teams have been gearing up on Anton and we’re well above our average points per game, so I think our offense, in many ways, looks great,” he added.
Joining Watson in his pursuit are Lloyd (13.2 ppg, first-team all-GSL) and seniors Sheadon Byrd (9.3 ppg), point guard Jacob Parola and forward Carter Sonneborn (8.1 ppg), who is walking on at Washington State.
G-Prep will face the winner of Wednesday’s first-round game between eight-seeded Battle Ground and ninth-seeded Kentridge on Thursday at 2 p.m. Then, if seeds hold, the Bullpups could face McDaniels and Federal Way in a semifinal on Friday at 5:30 p.m.
It’s a matchup everyone in the state wants to see and would garner national attention because of its two high-profile prospects.
Mt. Spokane looks to get over the hump
The Wildcats (23-1) have lost once this season – to G-Prep, on opening night of league play in December.
They dominated 3A league play all season and weren’t challenged during the district tournament, beating Shadle Park 73-55 in a semifinal and Kennewick 70-32 in the championship game.
The Wildcats then took care of seventh-seeded Prairie 71-52 in a regional game at University HS on Saturday, a game that wasn’t as close as the score. Mt. Spokane led 64-27 after three quarters and emptied the bench for the fourth.
Super sophomore Tyson Degenhart had 25 points – 16 in the first half – and afterward said he and his teammates wanted to make a statement.
“We just wanted to come out and punch them in the mouth and show that we’re as good a team in the state and we can compete with anybody,” he said.
Coach David Wagenblast was more diplomatic, of course, but was proud of the effort he witnessed with high stakes on the line.
“We played so hard in that first half,” Wagenblast said. “That was the hardest we’ve played all year. We were really efficient and tough and very focused as I’ve seen us be all year. And because of that, we were tough to stop.”
With some of the high-profile 3A programs on the west side of the state, Prairie included, Mt. Spokane sometimes gets lost in the shuffle.
“I’m not a social media guy, but I was told by several people how Prairie was on a roll,” Wagenblast said. “Well, you know, we haven’t lost since the first of December.
“I think we’re going to be a team that people on the west side of the state are going to look at and think, ‘I need to go check out that team.’ ”
Like G-Prep, Mt. Spokane is rich in senior leadership, with eight on the squad. First-team All-GSL guard Jerry Twenge (15.7 ppg) and second-teamer JT Smith (11.6 ppg) fill it up from the outside. Spencer Barrera is lightning fast and the team’s lockdown defender.
League honorable mention Tanner Brooks (7.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg) brings a football mentality to inside play. A solid 6-5, he’s headed to Idaho in the fall to play tight end and outside linebacker.