Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Las Vegas Sun sports reporters Ray Brewer and Case Keefer work through their final podcast of the school year by discussing the state basketball tournament at the Orleans Arena this weekend.
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At the end of the Desert Pines High basketball team’s Tuesday practice, Jaguars coach Mike Uzan brought his players together underneath the basket on the far side of the gym and delivered a simple message: Let’s make history.
Uzan urged them to seize the moment, reminding the teenagers their goal of being state champions was two victories away.
As he talked to the players, some couldn’t help staring at a near empty wall behind the basket.
That’s the place where schools hang their championship banners. But at Desert Pines, which opened in 1999, they’ve never had a state championship in any sport. The wall has a few banners from league or region titles, but nothing of the state variety.
That could change this week.
The four-team Division I-A tournament begins Friday at Del Sol with Desert Pines playing Lowry High of Winnemucca in the semifinals. Desert Pines, which last week won the Southern Region title and is led by the classification’s best player in USC-committed guard Julian Jacobs, won’t be satisfied with anything less than a championship.
“We all have a common goal and that is to win the state championship,” Jacobs said. “All year, we have proven we are one of the top teams. This is our chance to show it one more time.”
While the championship would be the crowning moment in Desert Pines history, it would be a bittersweet victory. The same could be said for Clark High, which plays Elko Friday in the other semifinal and will likely meet Desert Pines at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Orleans for the championship.
Desert Pines and Clark are two of the state’s top teams, but because they compete in the Division 1-A — a league with small town schools such as Pahrump Valley and Boulder City — have been forced to thrive in the shadow of the likes of Division-I powers Bishop Gorman and Centennial.
Sure, a banner to hang in the gym won’t say what classification the championship was won in, and in 20 years nobody will know the difference, but you can’t hide the fact that some at Desert Pines and Clark would feel slighted.
Until this year, both schools competed in the large-school classification. But all Las Vegas-area schools were realigned starting last fall, using a point system based on where teams finished in the standings in certain sports over the past two years in determining the new leagues.
Schools such as Desert Pines that struggled in most sports where reassigned to compete against the former 3A classification of Boulder City, Moapa Valley and Virgin Valley — a three-team league where finding games was tough because of the expense of travel.
For the most part, the realignment worked. Schools such as Chaparral and Mojave finally could make the playoffs, and others won playoff games.
But in basketball, realignment hasn’t been as popular.
Boulder City, Moapa Valley and Virgin Valley regularly competed for the state title for decades, but didn’t make this year’s event. If it were the old 3A classification, Boulder City would have arguably won the state title. But because they had to contend with Desert Pines and Clark to reach the tournament, an early playoff exit was unavoidable.
Desert Pines (26-3), which is considered the state’s No. 3 overall team by Maxpreps.com, regularly beat Division-I teams during non-league play by convincing margins. And two weeks ago, Desert Pines gave Findlay Prep — the nation’s No. 1 team — everything it could handle before losing 64-62 late.
You can’t blame Uzan, the Jaguars’ feisty coach, for being vocal about not getting a crack against the best the state has to offer.
“We haven’t lost to a Nevada team except Findlay Prep. They are the No. 1 team in the country and they beat us by two points,” Uzan said. “Yeah, we’d like to play Gorman. We’ll play anybody.”
Uzan doesn’t want his displeasure to take away from the experience for his players, but wonders why the experience needs to include playing a semifinal game at Del Sol. The semifinals of the Division-I tournament are contested at the Orleans Arena, a worthy venue for the reward of making state.
The lower Division I-A is contested at Del Sol because there simply isn’t enough court time at the Orleans. That means Desert Pines is playing a school from a town of 7,000 residents at a local high school.
“What are we the little brother?” Uzan said. “I think the NIAA really messed up by doing (realignment) this way. They are watering it down and giving everyone participation awards at this point. They aren’t doing it the right way, but who am I?”
Desert Pines led Clark by 20 points last Saturday in the Southern Region title game, but Clark mounted a rally in the second half to make things interesting in only losing, 63-59.
Clark is led by Sir Washington, who signed with Eastern Washington, and top 2014 recruit Diontae Jones. The Chargers (28-2) had a 22-game winning streak dating back to early December before falling to Desert Pines. And, like Desert Pines, they have several wins against Division-I opponents, beating eight of the classification’s playoff teams by double digits.
“We had no control over where they classified us,” Clark coach Chad Beeten said. “We just tried to beat as many teams (in the Division-I) as we could. You can only play who's on your schedule. I don’t have any clue why they made the decision to realign the way they did.
“We are where we are, and regardless of class, I know myself and the kids are ready for this (weekend). Our goal is to win state. We don’t care who it is against.”
That’s a similar sentiment for the players at Desert Pines. They are playing for state championship rings and to be forever known as champions with a banner in the school gym.
“We have worked so hard all year for this,” Desert Pines senior guard Donovan Wright said. “Every day we are working hard to bring some history back to this gym with a banner.”