Emmitt Matthews Jr. remembers Wilson High School boys basketball coach Dave Alwert saying something at halftime that got them laughing.
What was it? He couldn’t remember. But laughing was all that mattered.
“It was Alwert, so it couldn’t have been really that funny,” Matthews joked. “But we laughed. And we get motivated when we’re having fun. That’s a big part of our team and we went into the locker room and coach said we weren’t having fun.”
But going back to the 3A state tournament and a shot at the Tacoma Dome?
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Yeah, that’s pretty fun.
Matthews had 29 points and seven rebounds and Londrell Hamilton scored 16 points as Wilson ran away in the second half to race past league-rival Spanaway Lake for a 77-52 win in the do-or-die, winner-to-state, loser-out game on Thursday at Clover Park High School.
The 6-foot-7 Matthews scored 20 points in the second half, he went 5-for-7 from the 3-point line, 11 of 17 overall and the UConn signee soared through the middle of the lane for a left-handed tip dunk to ignite the crowd in the third quarter.
That gave Wilson a 42-39 lead in what had been a back-and-forth game. It kick-started an 8-0 Wilson run.
Wilson currently holds the No. 8 spot in the WIAA’s RPI rankings. The top eight teams are guaranteed a spot in the Tacoma Dome and play for a first-round bye, while the bottom eight teams to qualify into the 16-team regional round of state have to play a loser-out regional game.
The Rams next plays Prairie, which is ranked No. 9 in those WIAA rankings. So that game theoretically would decide who is guaranteed a spot in the Tacoma Dome and who has to play a loser-out game.
“I mean, it’s kill or be killed here,” Matthews said. “It’s playoff mode. Like LeBron James, Zero Dark Thirty. It’s mental from here on out.”
And that mode for Matthews lately has been on another level.
He opened the district tournament with 40 points and 13 rebounds against Central Kitsap. Then he had 31 points and 21 rebounds in a loss to Kelso, which will play Lincoln in the district championship game at noon on Saturday in Puyallup.
Matthews followed with eight points, five assists, eight rebounds and four blocks in Wilson’s fourth win of the season over Stadium, 73-49. And then Thursday night’s win over Spanaway Lake. He’s averaging 27 points, 12.3 rebounds in postseason play.
“He was on today,” Spanaway Lake coach Dom Batten said. “You talk about a guy who is 6-7, he can dribble, but he doesn’t get enough credit for how good of a passer he is.
“He’s finally, definitely coming into his own. He hasn’t forced shots, he really understands how to let the game come to him, how to get his teammates involved and just from a maturity standpoint he’s grown a lot.”
Spanaway Lake led 18-12 after the first quarter before Wilson’s long zone defense held the Sentinels to nine points in the second quarter. It was tied at 27-27 at halftime.
Batten said he could feel his players tighten up when Wilson went on its third-quarter run. They were playing with a community on their shoulders, with Spanaway Lake hoping to make its third-even state tournament appearance and get their big-three senior guards, Divante Moffitt, Isaiah Turner and Jordan Garner, a chance at playing in the Tacoma Dome.
Moffitt finished with 14 points, and Turner and Garner each had 11. But Wilson outscored Spanaway 32-13 in the final quarter.
“That one feels worse than losing in state last year,” Batten said.
Spanaway Lake ends its season at 17-6.
“I just learned yesterday that 17 wins was the most in Spanaway Lake history,” said Batten, a Spanaway Lake graduate. “I mean, they have a lot to celebrate. They have a lot to be proud of.
“I got the chance to see them grow into young men. They came in like 14 years olds do, but they made a pact that they were going to stick together, work together, grow together. It was contagious. I mean, they heard a lot of outside noise about, ‘Don’t go to Spanaway Lake, go here, go there. But they did something we thought guys in our area could do. They had the courage to fight for each other, play for each other and grow with each other. I’m very proud of them.”
Matthews hugged Moffitt afterward, They were AAU teammates this past summer.
That’s the kind of infectious personality Matthews has become around these parts. But Alwert said his standout senior has made bounds from the start of the season in his leadership, taking more of an onus to talk to players individually. He’s also the one inviting teammates over to his house for pizza and Fortnight, a video game.
Rainier Beach’s Kevin Porter Jr, a USC signee, was there Thursday to watch Matthews, as he has multiple times this season. They played some AAU basketball together in the summer and have been friends since, despite the inherent Tacoma-Seattle rivalry.
“It’s hard for me to get to some of his games, but I saw him play Cleveland,” Matthews said. “It’s like a brotherhood, though. We’re all family. We all want to make millions off of basketball.”
Matthews is at his best when he plays relaxed, Alwert said. That’s when Matthews started deflating Spanaway Lake’s rhythm with 3-pointers in the third quarter, though he left toward the end of the period after landing hard on his left wrist. He eventually returned but was icing it afterward.
“I told him to go get a couple of buckets early and see the ball go through the hoop,” Alwert said. “When he sees the ball go through the hoop, things change.
“I just love him and I love his family. Our spirits are really high right now.”
Alwert also said Matthews passed Wilson graduate Keun Palu-Thompson for most career wins in school history, earning his 76th in his fourth year there.
And with a win Saturday over Prairie, Matthews is hoping to make that back-to-back trips to the Tacoma Dome.
“I wasn’t going to end my career without playing under those lights again,” Matthews said. “It wasn’t going to end in this gym.”
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Wilson: Damani Green 4, Emmitt Matthews Jr. 29, Daniel Santana 6, Nate Stokes 10, Londrell Hamilton 16, Drew Bonds 2.
Spanaway Lake: Derek Gordon 7, Divante Moffitt 14, Isaiah Turner 11, Ja’Ontay Foster 5, Jordan Garner 11, Terrell Williams 4.