Ray Brewer / Las Vegas Sun
Friday, Feb. 23, 2018 | 11:23 p.m.
RENO — It was just an exhibition basketball game two weeks before the high school season would begin. But for the players on Bishop Gorman’s roster, the loss was devastating.
Gorman was defeated by Clark, a team that many labeled as the state’s best because it returned all of its players from the previous season. Gorman was the defending champions, but with a roster of mostly underclassmen, it was Clark — not the ever-dominant Gaels — that was the team to beat.
The one game, although played with a running clock and with players wearing practice uniforms, served a purpose: Gorman coach Grant Rice could have managed the game differently but wanted the younger players to experience losing.
“Our kids were upset,” he said. “I kind of looked at them and laughed, ‘Guys, we didn’t call a timeout. We had timeouts. We did this for a reason so you know what it feels like to lose a game.’ They didn’t like that. There were light tears in some of their eyes. You could see we had a special group of guys after that.”
Fast forward to the last game of the season.
Gorman opened the state championship game Friday against Bishop Manogue with two freshmen and two sophomores in the starting lineup, finishing the season just like the others since 2012. Gorman limited Bishop Manogue to six points in the fourth quarter to win its seventh straight title, 62-41.
Freshman Will McClendon played 25 minutes and scored 13 points, including a critical 3-pointer in the second half as Gorman opened the third quarter on a 9-0 scoring run. Zaon Collins, another freshman, had eight assists in 30 minutes, while sophomores Isaiah Cottrell and Noah Taitz have been two of Gorman’s top three players all season.
They finished the season with a 29-4 record, including many wins against notable competition in out-of-state events. Imagine how good this core group will be in two seasons.
“We are all so close, so we have a close bond,” McClendon said of the underclassmen. “We know each others’ strengths and weaknesses. Our chemistry is so strong. That’s why we do so well.”
When the season began, Gorman had one player with significant experience, senior Jamal Bey. The Washington signee was as good as advertised in leading the way, including a game-high 21 points in his final high school game.
Bey shouldered the pressure in continuing the Gorman legacy. He was determined to not have the program’s championship streak end on his watch.
“Best player in the state,” Rice said of Bey.
But he wasn't the only upperclassman who made meaningful contributions this week.
Senior D.J. Howe was a defensive stopper at point guard all season, flipping Gorman’s fortunes in the second half of Thursday’s state semifinals with his full-court pressure defense. Gorman trailed Spanish Springs late in the fourth quarter before rallying.
Howe bruised his knee late in the semifinals and was on crutches for the championship game, opening the door for Collins to start. It was another example of Gorman’s player depth during its record-setting championship run, where the seven titles in a row are an NIAA best, according to the group’s record book. It was Rice’s 11th state championship as coach.
Whenever Gorman graduates a player, whether it was McDonald’s All-Americans like Charles O’Bannon or Zach Collins, or a role player such as Howe, they haven’t missed a beat.
“These are my brothers, man,” Howe said. “We have been working hard all year and state is the ultimate goal. We all worked hard. Everyone is part of this team and did their job to get the seven-peat.”
Taitz scored 10 points for Gorman, junior Chance Michels had nine and Cottrell had eight.
While it was Gorman’s seventh straight title, it was the first for McClendon and Collins. And probably not their last.
“We are going to be real good. We have some talented freshmen and sophomores,” Howe said. “They have a big future in front of them.”