By Michael Wojtychiw
The basketball gods haven’t been good to Manley.
As recently as two years ago, the team didn’t have a basketball team. Last year’s squad only won a handful of games with a roster of many young players under the leadership of a first-year coach in Charles Moore.
But after the squad’s 61-45 win in the first official Blue Division championship game, held at McGrath-Phillips Arena on DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus, it’s fair to say the Wildcats are back.
“Our guys buckled down and started playing hard,” Moore said. “At the beginning of the season we were all over the place, but by the middle of the season, you could see they started to want to win.
“I’m blown away. Last year. Nobody was coming out to see us and the year before we didn’t have a team. So to see all these fans coming out and the alumni supporting us, the guys love it.”
“I told the guys we were going to come out, stay focused, play hard like we do every game,” Manley’s Jajuan Newby said. “It was a tough game at first but we earned the win and kept fighting.
“It feels great to do this as a senior. Last year I had some tough times, so I just had to help bring the championship to Manley this year.”
Manley has gone on the road and played in some of the area’s biggest tournaments, like the DeKalb Christmas Tournament, as well as challenged itself by playing in a number of shootouts.
It’d be fair to say that those experiences have really paid off as the Wildcats carried a 27-4 record into the state playoffs after its win over Carver.
“We took everything personally this year,” Washington said. “We took everything with a chip on our shoulder. Last year we didn’t win that many games so we’re looking at this like a revenge tour.”
After the Challengers took a 2-0 lead to start the game, it was all Manley after that as once it took the lead a couple possessions later, it never gave it back.
The Wildcats would take a 30-21 lead into the half courtesy of the play of their stars, Washington and Newby. Washington scored 11 points in the half, while Newby had 10 and pulled down six rebounds, all on the offensive glass. Ten of the Wildcats’ 17 rebounds in the first half were of the offensive variety.
Down 34-23 with 5:11 remaining, the Challengers started their comeback.
Carver made six of its next nine shots, cutting the lead down to two, 38-36, with 37 seconds remaining in the third period.
“Really it was our fans that motivated us to keep pushing,” Carver’s Zoqan Lee said. “At one point, I felt like we were going to lose, but knowing they’re there supporting us kept all of us motivated.”
That would be as close as the Challengers would get, however, as the Wildcats went on a 16-0 run to give them a 54-36 lead halfway through the fourth quarter, sealing the game.
“Our coachtold us to emphasize defense,” washington said. “Once we emphasized defense, we got into a rhythm and then started on a roll.”
“Our coaches told us to run man at first, but after I told him that they were breaking that and we should go to a 1-2-2 (zone),” Newby said. Once we went to that, we were unstoppable. We just broke the press and it kept working.”
An interesting thing for the Challengers all season has been the presence of Carver legend Tim Hardaway. The Hall of Famer has been around his alma mater’s squad and it’s been quite the experience for the players to have someone of his stature at their games and practices.
“We feel grateful that he takes the time out of his day to come cheer us on and visit us,” Lee said.
“We don’t seem his as just Tim Hardaway, we know him as a person, not just the basketball player,” Carver’s jonathan Macklemore said. “It’s normal for us to see him at thighs like this, but we’re still grateful because we know he’s got time for other things as well.”
Washington finished with 21 points, while Newby added 17 points and 11 rebounds. Macklemore led the Challengers with 18 points and Lee added 10.
“I just go out and do whatever my team needs me to do,” Washington said. “I never really focus on points, but sometimes it happens when I take over when needed.”
Manley is in a sub-sectional of the Class 1A Elgin Sectional, where it is the three seed and slotted to participate in the Marshall regional. After a regional quarterfinal win over Urban Prep-West, the Wildcats will play Providence-St. Mel on Feb. 22. The Challengers, on the other hand, saw their season come to an end when it lost to Chicago Christian in the Class 2A Joliet Catholic Regional in the regional quarterfinal.