The players on the Washington High School boys' basketball team knew how to win before this season even started ... there was no questioning that.
The Little Prexies won 13 games last season to reach the WPIAL playoffs. All five starters returned from that group. Also, six of coach Mark Gaither's top nine players played on the Prexies football team that reached the WPIAL Class AA championship game at Heinz Field this past November.
But there was a stretch in the middle of January when wins were hard to come by. Washington dropped four of five games, including a stretch of three losses in four days.
"It was a tough week," Gaither said. "It was a week that we needed, a week that a lot of good teams go through. We had some good honest open conversations during that time and it was a good wakeup call. We know we are not good enough where we can just show up and win games."
Playing without their full complement of starters for a variety of reasons, Washington dropped games at Burgettstown, against the City League's Perry Traditional Academy and at Bishop Canevin. After a 4-0 start in section play the Prexies found themselves sitting at 4-3 with their postseason fate not yet certain.
"We had to start preparing and putting the time in," Gaither said. "We had to work hard every night."
Gaither knew his team had turned the corner in the second half of their next game against Chartiers-Houston. Washington put together a spirited defensive effort on its way to a 72-57 win.
"We started to feel good in practice," Gaither said. "We cleared the air and got some things off our chest. In the second half of the Chartiers-Houston game, we really locked down defensively, that was the turning point and the next week in practice I could just see it in the guy's eyes."
Washington is now 15-6 overall and 7-4 in WPIAL Class AA Section 4. It closes out its season Friday night at home against Burgettstown.
The Prexies, who have clinched a WPIAL playoff berth, are in second in the section behind Seton-LaSalle (19-2, 11-0) and ahead of Bishop Canevin (9-11, 6-4), Brentwood (11-9, 6-6) and Burgettstown (10-11, 5-6). Canevin and Burgettstown were scheduled to play Wednesday night.
Washington last competed in Class AA during the 2009-10 season. It won a section title and reached the WPIAL quarterfinals and PIAA second round.
With all five returning starters back, including a pair of three-year starters, the Prexies appear to be built for another playoff run.
Senior point guard Darius Spinks, senior guard Josh Wise and senior guard Jaylin Kelly makeup one of the most experienced backcourts in Class AA. Wise and Kelly are three-year starters. Starting forwards Rikwon Moore and Jordan Drew are also senior returning starters.
"This is definitely the most veteran team we have had here," Gaither said.
Wise is the leading scorer on the team averaging 22.4 points per game. Kelly is averaging 9.5 points per game and junior guard Dupree Jenkins is averaging nine points per game off the bench. Jenkins and senior guard Marquel Matusic have both started games this season and play significant minutes off the bench when not starting. Drew is the leading rebounder on the team, averaging 8.5 rebounds per game.
"We like to dictate the tempo and push the ball," Gaither said. "Offensively, we like to get some transition points. We do have a lot of athleticism and team speed. But defense is our key, our main staple is half-court man-to-man."
Gaither hopes his basketball team can draw on some of its experience from the football season. The Prexies went 12-0 and reached the WPIAL championship game where it lost to Aliquippa.
Wise was the quarterback of the football team. Kelly, a team captain, was a linebacker and fullback. Spinks played wide receiver and defensive back and Moore was a two-way lineman.
"The guys are starting to believe," Gaither said. "They know how to win. Most of my guys played football and they have carried that [attitude] over. Winning breeds winning."
First Published February 7, 2013 5:00 AM