WALLA WALLA — Wa-Hi is playing its best basketball of the season at the right time.
After ending the regular season on a 3-8 slide, the Blue Devil boys won both single-elimination games in the Mid-Columbia Conference tournament and narrowly missed knocking off Richland for the tourney title Saturday in Richland, 62-60, in their most competitive game of the year with the league-leading Bombers.
And now Wa-Hi (14-9) is looking at another loser-out contest tonight at 7:15 when they host the Greater Spokane League’s Gonzaga Prep (16-6) in a four-team regional tournament.
“For us to win two games where you either win or your season’s over, I was really proud of our kids,” Wa-Hi coach John Golden said. “They played with a lot of passion and like our season was on the line.”
Wa-Hi’s defense has kept the Blue Devils in close games this season, but it has been the offense that keyed Wa-Hi to three wins in four games.
“We’re defending, which is really important this time of the year,” Golden said. “We’re hitting shots, that’s another critical thing — we’ve got a lot of positives we’re trying to build on and we’re hoping that’s what carries us through this weekend.”
The Blue Devils have been bouyed by shooting guard Eric Klicker’s recovery from illness and forward Sam Arias finding his stroke.
Klicker, a 6-foot-1 junior, began the year as one of Wa-Hi’s go-to shooters on the outside, but suffered a foot infection in January that sidelined him for several games.
He then came down with a bout of the flu and wasn’t back to full strength until the beginning of February.
“Last week it really felt like he had gotten through all of that (illness),” Golden said. “He was strong again and shot the ball well.”
And Klicker’s return to health has meant teams couldn’t just lock down on guard Gabe Porter, who scored 22 against Richland.
“It’s nice to be able to have that ability to have another guard who can score,” Golden said.
Gonzaga Prep, on the other hand, enters the game having lost three out of its last five games.
“They’re well coached, they’re very physical,” Golden said of the Bullpups. “They really get up into you and pressure you. Their point guard (Sam Dowd) is really quick and they’ve got a couple big-bodied guys inside that can give you a lot of trouble.
“They just haven’t been shooting it was well as earlier in the year,” Golden said. “They’ve still been defending well, they just haven’t been shooting it as well. Hopefully, that will continue (tonight).”
Golden was especially concerned with posts Joe Chapman and Jake Groh.
“He’s (Groh) a load inside,” Golden said. “They’re really aggressive on the inside and physical — we’re going to have to match their physicality and not let them push us off our lines. It’s going to be a challenge.”
At 6-8, Wa-Hi center Tanner Cranor holds a height advantage over Groh (6-4) and Chapman (6-3), but will need help from Arias and Paul Gilmore on the interior.
“Sam’s been playing pretty well offensively, but Paul’s been playing well, too,” Golden said. “We’ve got some options and we’ll just kind of have to see how it goes.”
Should the Blue Devils defeat Gonzaga Prep tonight, they will face the loser of Richland-Central Valley for a trip to state.
“They’ve (Gonzaga Prep) got a lot of peices that make up a very good team,” Golden said. “They finished second up there in the GSL behind Central Valley, so we’re definitely going to have our hands full.”