The gym sold out almost 36 hours before tipoff. The buzz was palpable, the anticipation so great the bleachers were nearly packed for the JV basketball game that preceded the main event. Heck, there was so much interest in the athletes on the floor that even college football coaches showed up to watch.
That’s how big the high school basketball showdown between Westlake and Lake Travis was during an Austin area prep season that’s been awash with spectacular talent. And we’re not just talking Westlake’s Will Baker. Or @thrillbaker, as his Twitter handle goes. Thrills, there were plenty of on Tuesday night.
“Yeah, it’s like Duke-North Carolina,” Lake Travis coach Clint Baty joked the day before. “These are games you see on TV. It’s going to be crazy.”
His counterpart, Westlake’s fourth-year head coach Robert Lucero, looked forward to it even more because his Chaparrals were the No. 2-ranked team in the state with a 27-3 record, blemished only by two losses to top-rated, dripping-with-talent Denton Guyer and a setback against an Arizona team at a holiday tournament in California. Besides, Lucero’s team brought a six-game winning streak against its rival into this matchup.
Make it seven after a 70-65 Chaps victory in a game that was so hotly contested that even the raucous students let loose with some salty taunts. Like “Fourth-and-7” from the Westlake bunch, recalling that Lake Travis finally lost to the Chaps in football after a failed fourth-down play, and “You Can’t Guard Him” from the Lake Travis throng after Garrett Wilson blew past his defender for another wild dunk, although he missed one vicious try that bounced all the way back across midcourt.
Of course, Lucero smiles often these days.
Consider this: Every Westlake starter has signed with, committed to or will receive a scholarship offer from a college program, and the Chaps are on a mission to reach the UIL state tournament for the first time after two straight trips to the regional finals. And why not? The Chaps have four starters who are 6 feet 5 inches or taller. Lucero starts four seniors, including Texas Longhorns signee Brock Cunningham, who is unbelievably polished, dynamic and mature beyond his years. He can play any position on the court maybe besides center.
But Baker’s got that covered. He’s the lone junior starter, a versatile, highly developed 6-10 center who is the 11th-ranked player in the nation, according to Rivals, and has blue blood programs from Kansas to North Carolina coveting him. He can play with his back to the basket, he’s an adept passer, and he can even shoot 3s. He hit seven of ’em against McNeil this season, although he’s only 28 percent accurate overall. Oh, and he’s a lefty.
“We have a lot of guys who will play D1. It’s a blessing to play with all of them,” Baker said after his 18-point, eight-rebound game, which included one dunk followed by a primal scream. “Yeah, I was in a slump at that time.”
He’s so dynamic that Roy Williams checked him out last week during Westlake’s win over Vandegrift, which just so happens to have a five-star wing in Greg Brown, who’s just a sophomore. But then, who hasn’t shown up? Tony Bennett of No. 2 Virginia’s been here. So has Purdue’s Matt Painter and Michigan’s John Beilein, as well as Shaka Smart, A&M’s Billy Kennedy and Baylor’s Scott Drew.
Baker will sort through 20 offers but said he has no favorite at the moment. He calls Texas “a great school” and says he “likes Texas as much as any other school” while not tipping his hand. Asked if Cunningham is pushing him to be a Longhorn, Baker answered, “He’s invited me to their games, but he’s not pressuring me.”
They would make a heckuva package deal. Despite being only 6-6, Cunningham is Westlake’s leading rebounder, grabbing almost 11 a game to go with his 16-point scoring average. I suppose he stops hustling once he’s on the team bus because he’s everywhere on the court. He’s a leaper and a great shooter with terrific court awareness and a high basketball IQ. He took over the game at times Tuesday night, finishing with 22 points, eight boards and four assists, but he’s never satisfied.
“We laid a goose egg tonight,” said Cunningham, who inherited his toughness from his father, Ed, who played a whole season as a Longhorns offensive tackle while ignoring torn knee ligaments. “But it’s always good to win. This was one you’ll always remember.”
He’s joined on the Chaps by Baylor-bound, shaggy-haired Matt Mayer, a 6-8 wing who’s an excellent perimeter shooter, and willowy 6-5 forward Keonte Kennedy, who is headed to Xavier. Point guard Luke Pluymen plans to play for St. Edward’s.
Lake Travis is hardly without talent itself, thanks to Wilson, Mercer-bound Luke Hamilton and Cavaliers junior D.J. Thorpe, who isn’t quite the recruiting prize yet that Baker is but could be eventually. He’s got a mound of athletic talent, an NBA body — and an NBA pedigree.
He’s the 6-8½ son of Otis Thorpe, who totaled more than 17,000 points and 10,000 rebounds while playing for nine NBA teams, including the champion Houston Rockets before being traded away to Portland in a deal that brought Clyde Drexler to Houston.
“He was a little more poised and ready for the physicality tonight,” his dad said of D.J. on Tuesday. “He’s got the motor. It’s about using it. There was a lot of good energy tonight. Will has improved so much, and Brock has always been a bulldog on the floor.”
D.J. already has fielded offers from A&M, TCU, Virginia, Kansas State and Tulsa. Oklahoma is eyeballing him, too. He said he was “definitely locked in” and feels his own game has come far.
“D.J. can be very physical and very dominant down low,” Baty said. “Away from the goal, he’s still working on developing the consistency he has around the rim. He’s got a grown man’s body right now. Most 16- and 17-year-olds are not 215, 220 pounds. He’s built like a brick house. He can impose his will on a game when he’s aggressive.”
And his teammate Wilson, the otherworldly athlete who starred on both sides of the ball for the Cavaliers’ state-finalist football team, now drops jaws with his play on the basketball court. On Tuesday morning, Sooners football coach Lincoln Riley stopped by campus, and TCU offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie checked out the basketball game that night.
Wilson’s future will remain on the football field, although Tennessee and Tulane both have tendered hoops offers. If he announced he preferred basketball over football, Wilson said, “it would be nuts.”
Kind of like Tuesday’s game.