What does the Mountain Pointe High boys’ basketball team do for an encore?
Win one more game, the Pride players say.
The team is coming off the best season in school history, 6A state runner up at 26-4, in Duane Eason’s first – and, as it turned out, only – season as coach.
“Last year we put a banner on that side,” new coach Kirk Fauske said, pointing left at the gym wall where state runner-up pennants hang.
“Now, it’s plain and simple: We want to put a banner over there,” Fauske said, motioning to his right, where Pride championship teams of various sports – notably not basketball – are honored.
In Fauske, the Pride have a new coach for the second consecutive year, although he is not new to the players. Fauske assisted the varsity and guided the Pride junior varsity to an undefeated record.
According to Fauske, Eason, who took the coaching job at Phoenix College, was his mentor so the style of play that has been Pride basketball is not about to change. Fauske hopes to run the program virtually the same way Eason ran it, and he’ll have much of the same personnel to do it.
Standout post player Jalen Graham and point guard Khalid Price return for their senior seasons.
Fauske is especially excited about the seniors, who are still fuming that they fell to Pinnacle in last season’s state-title game. Fauske also is an AAU coach in the off season for Powerhouse Hoops and has worked with the 6-foot-10 Graham, who committed to Santa Clara University.
Graham averaged 11 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.4 blocks as a junior.
“It is more team goals than necessarily individual goals,” Graham said. “We are focused on working together and hopefully winning a state championship.”
In summer and off-season play, Graham looked like one of the premiere low-post scorers in the state. He often is double-teamed, which opens space for others to drive to the basket or take open jumpers.
“He brings it to practice,” Fauske said. “Players like Jalen, who went out on the circuit and played against the best players in the country, knows what it takes to win.
“Khalid Price is hungry. He felt like he deserved a ring. He’s on a mission.”
Price confirmed that.
“Last year, we worked all year and didn’t get the outcome we wanted,” he said. “This year, we are coming back hungrier, harder and making sure we play as a team.”
Price, who averaged a team-leading 14 points, 4.7 assists and 1.7 steals as a junior, emphasized how important the experience of last season is.
“We have already been there,” Price said. “We know what it takes and we need to work ten times harder to reach the outcome of winning it all. If we want to win the title, we have to execute the right way.”
Mountain Pointe lost forward Amarion Cash to graduation, but returns many other top players and has Fauske’s unbeaten JVs coming up. The talent level makes the Pride’s gym a hot-spot for college scouts.
Several players said they are in the best shape of their lives, as Fauske has “run them like crazy.”
“The style of play isn’t going to change. We are going to be pressing, aggressive. You are going to see guys running up and down the court,” Fauske said. “The guys have really bought into the system and they feel comfortable with it. It drives itself. We will be faster than last year.”
Senior Jonah LaBranche said that since Eason’s arrival last year, the work ethic, especially on defense, has “changed 100 percent.”
“And now, Coach Fauske has kept the mindset the same for all of us,” LaBranche said. A bunch of us have played together for years now, so we understand how we all play, and we want to make the most of it in our last year.”
Mountain Pointe’s success was a surprise to most of the state last season. This time, expectations of the Pride are high. They won’t be sneaking up on anybody, LaBranche, a 6-7 senior wing, said. Because the Pride regularly receive opposing teams’ best efforts, they must play at a high level every game.
“There’s going to be that target on our back because we won all those games last year and made the championship game,” LaBranche said. “Every team we play against now is coming for our spot, and we don’t want to give it up.”
The Pride hope their defense puts them over the top. Mountain Pointe instituted full-court pressure under Eason, with Price leading the charge to harass opposing guards and create deflections and steals. Teammates then cut off passing lanes or block shots.
“The mindset is that we practice like the way we play,” Fauske said. “We need to bring a state-championship mentality every time we step on the floor. That way, when we go out in a big game, it will be just like practice.”