The University Trojans have the No. 1 target on their backs, but that’s the kind of pressure this senior laden team likes.
They’ve handled their lofty status as Class 5A’s top team quite well as they’ve blitzed through the first three rounds of the playoffs with lopsided wins over Jacksonville, Huntsville and Nacogdoches.
Now they’ll face Fort Bend Marshall at 7 p.m. Friday at Delmar Fieldhouse in Houston in the Region III semifinals. With two more wins, University will reach the state semifinals in Austin.
“We’ve had that No. 1 target but we have a great group of senior leaders and we’re going to play every night,” said University coach Rodney Smith. “This season has already been special because the kids have responded so well to adversity. When we play in Houston, we’re just going to have to be a little bit better than we’ve been before.”
The Trojans (29-8) come into the game with a 14-game winning streak after sweeping through District 18-5A followed by the three playoff wins. University opened the playoffs with an 89-39 blowout of Jacksonville followed by an 84-51 win over Huntsville and Monday’s 76-58 thrashing of Nacogdoches.
With a 29-7 record, Marshall will be by far the toughest opponent so far in the playoffs. But the Trojans have built so much confidence that they believe they can beat anybody.
They’ve also had plenty of motivation after two straight second-round playoff losses in the last two seasons.
“With our whole team coming back we expected to go far in the playoffs,” said senior guard Tim Wilkinson. “Everybody is unselfish, and we like sharing the ball with each other and getting everybody involved. Coach Smith says to play intense defense and put pressure on ballhandlers to make sure they don’t get chances to shoot.”
This will be Smith’s final run as the Trojans basketball coach since he has been named University’s football coach. This is also the last go-round for 11 seniors, some who have played together since they were pre-schoolers.
“Some of us have played together since we were 4 or 5 years old,” Wilkinson said, “We’ve played a lot of summer ball together and we’ve done a lot of team bonding. We’ve won national (AAU) tournaments in Dallas and Las Vegas.”
While this is an extremely tight-knit group, there’s no question the leader is senior point guard Umoja Gibson. The quick, elusive guard is averaging a team-high 20.1 points and 11.2 assists and is a big-time threat from 3-point range where he has shot 41 percent.
“I feel like I bring the alpha dog and they feed off my energy,” Gibson said. “If I play bad they play bad. So every game I have to play with the same focus and intensity and try to keep everybody together and make sure we win.”
Gibson has ramped up his game to another level during the Trojans’ playoff run.
“As Umoja goes we go,” Smith said.”He’s just a great kid and I think he’s a better person than an athlete. He stays positive and that’s big because a lot of kids read him.”
Antoine Hailey, a 6-3 forward, is the Trojans’ biggest threat inside as he’s averaging 13.2 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. The 6-7 Jabrael Washington is averaging 7.3 points but his biggest contributions are on defense as he’s averaging 9.2 rebounds and a remarkable 6.5 blocked shots per game.
Guard Corey Montgomery is another scoring threat with 10.1 points per game while knocking down 37 percent from 3-point range. Rounding out the starting lineup is guard Justin Williams who is averaging 9.3 points and 7.3 boards.
“Antoine is an open floor guy who likes to dunk the ball but can knock down the 3,” Smith said. “You can’t leave Corey open and Justin does it all. Our big guy in the middle (Washington) is playing lights out. He’s blocking shots and the ones he doesn’t block he affects.”
Wilkinson, Alayiss Montgomery and Derek Hopkins are strong contributors off the bench.
“Night in and night out we don’t know whose turn it’s going to be,” Smith said. “All 13 players on the squad are instrumental to our success. We’ve got a well rounded bunch that’s great to be around. I don’t have any problem keeping them focused. All the seniors have grown up and are in a great situation right now.”
The Trojans are at their best when they’re running the floor in transition, but they also have a good halfcourt game. An aggressive man to man defense and an effective press are also keys to their success. They’ve averaged 73.7 points per game while giving up just 51.9.
While two more regional wins would give this team a trip to the final four, Smith already knows the feeling after helping the 1992-93 squad reach the state semifinals as a player. Now Smith wants his players to experience that feeling.
“A state championship is a great goal and is in the back of our minds,” Smith said. “But truthfully, our focus is on Marshall. We’ve done a good job of taking this one game at a time. Marshall is a very good team but it’s going to come down to us playing University basketball.”