Isaiah Thomas hit that cold-blooded game-winner in the Pac-10 championship game seven years ago just before his University of Washington men’s basketball team headed to the NCAA Tournament.
Bobby Moorehead was in Tacoma watching. That was the craziest shot he’s ever seen, he said.
And now it’s his turn. The Stadium High School graduate is part of a pack of Tacoma natives who get their chance to have a shining moment in March.
They’ve gone from high school gyms at Clover Park, Federal Way, Foss, Lincoln, Stadium, Timberline and Wilson — and dreaming of state championships of the Tacoma Dome — to playing in front of a national audience this week during the NCAA Tournament.
“This is just the craziest feeling in the world,” Moorehead said. “Because this is the biggest sporting event in the world, in my opinion. The whole world will be watching, everybody fills out a bracket …”
He paused to let out a sigh and soak in that thought.
“It’s crazy,” he said.
They’re not in the Tacoma Dome anymore.
Ahmaad Rorie, Bobby Moorehead and Donaven Dorsey are in Kansas with the University of Montana. Jalen McDaniels is there, too, except he’s playing for San Diego State.
David Jenkins Jr. and South Dakota State are headed to Boise, Idaho. Ar’Mond Davis took a medical redshirt this season, but his University of Alabama is playing in Pittsburgh.
Moorehead had always scribbled out an NCAA Tournament bracket, but he says he’ll skip his picks this year to focus on more important matters, now that he’s Montana’s 6-foot-7 small forward. And he starts alongside Rorie, the Grizzlies point guard and former standout player at Clover Park and Lincoln.
The 14th-seeded Grizzlies — which might as well be the University of Tacoma now — play No. 3 Michigan in the first round on Thursday.
Rachi Wortham is one of Montana’s assistant coaches, 18 years after he played on Foss’ 2000 state title team. And Dorsey, who graduated from Timberline, is a medical redshirt this year, recovering from knee issues two years after he transferred from the University of Washington.
“Ahmaad and I talk about that a lot, we know we got a lot of fans in the Tacoma area,” Moorehead said. “Before the game we do a handshake with 2-5-3 in it – something we always do. It’s just really exciting to be able to play with guys you’ve known for a long time, and now to go to the NCAA Tournament with them is really special.”
Rorie said he always looked up to players like Isaiah Thomas (Los Angeles Lakers), Avery Bradley (Los Angeles Clippers) and Curtis graduate DaVonte Lacy. They helped pave the way for this generation of Tacoma basketball players, which also includes players like Rorie’s cousin, David Crisp, the former Clover Park standout now at UW, and his former Lincoln teammate Tre’Shaun Fletcher, who earned the Mid-American Conference’s player of the year and had Toledo within a game of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament.
Montana wouldn’t even have qualified if it hadn’t rallied from an 11-point halftime deficit in the Big Sky title game to beat Eastern Washington, featuring another South Sound product, Todd Beamer graduate Bogdan Bliznyuk, who set the conference’s all-time scoring record.
Not far from them, Bellarmine Prep’s Malachi Flynn and Federal Way’s Viont’e Daniels were the second- and third-leading scorers at Washington State University, though the Cougs aren’t dancing.
“It says we can play with anybody,” Rorie said. “We have people who can hoop in Tacoma. Guys like Isaiah, Avery and DaVonte Lacy set the bar for us and we’re trying to do the same thing and go out and compete to the best of our abilities and give back that way.
“It’s a real special opportunity and hopefully everybody can take advantage of it.”
Thomas texted Rorie earlier in this week to congratulate him. He also reached out to David Jenkins Jr.
That’s among the flood of alerts to Jenkins’ phone the past few days while the Wilson High School grad and this year’s Summit League freshman of the year prepares to lead 12th-seeded South Dakota State against No. 5 Ohio State on Thursday.
He said Wilson-to-NFL players Desmond Trufant and Xavier Cooper have also reached out, but Thomas relates on a personal level.
“I talk to Isaiah pretty often, but I feel like we’re the same,” Jenkins said. “The one thing me and him really relate with is we’ve been the underdogs our whole lives. But we’re just going and no matter what we’re both going to keep attacking. Nobody believed in him in the NBA even when he’s putting up more than 20 points per game. But he believes in his work and he knows God has his back no matter what and that the hard work is going to overcome everything. And I believe the same thing.
“When I see Isaiah Thomas text me, or Desmond Trufant or Xavier Cooper, it reminds me of the level they are at and the level I want to be at in the future.”
Jenkins had a South Dakota State scholarship offer after his senior season at Wilson, alongside offers from Saint Mary’s and San Francisco, but he was passed on by the schools closer to home. So Jenkins went to a prep school in Kansas, all while Jackrabbits coach and former UW assistant T.J. Otzelberger drove eight hours once a week just to spend an hour each visit recruiting Jenkins.
This season has been validation for him. And though other schools passed on him (and he said he even doubted himself for a while) he found his dream scenario starring in the Midwest.
“This is definitely surreal,” Jenkins said.
He started the season coming off the bench, but he’s since started 21 of the past 22 games and scored 29 points in the conference championship game against rival South Dakota (which starts Beamer grad Trey Burch-Manning) to help punch the Jackrabbits’ return trip to the NCAA Tournament. He now has the school’s record for most points by a freshman in a season.
“Just going through all the adversity and trying to stay confident in myself … I was under-recruited, I felt, and I felt a lot of coaches overlooked me and I felt I could have been playing a bit closer to home,” Jenkins said. “But at the same time I feel like this all happened for a reason. It’s been such a blessing for me to be out here and limit my distractions and I felt that was something I needed to work on.
“I actually talked to my coach about that today – I just thanked him for believing in me and giving me an opportunity to be great, no matter how many bad games I’ve had. He always believed in me and told me I’m going to bounce back and that’s what I did.”
ALL HE DOES IS WIN
Then there’s Jalen McDaniels and 11th-seeded San Diego State playing No. 6 Houston on Thursday. The 6-foot-10, 195-pound redshirt freshman is averaging 10.2 points and a team-leading 7.5 rebounds.
Few can say they win as much as he does. McDaniels led Federal Way to back-to-back 4A state titles (going 55-2 in two seasons). And that was after playing with Burch-Manning and Bliznyuk his sophomore year at Beamer when the Titans had what remains their best run in school history, reaching the 4A state semifinals.
And now the NCAA Tournament?
McDaniels will assure you — he knows winning isn’t supposed to seem this easy.
“It’s crazy. I think you just have to have a winning spirit,” he laughed.
His brother, equally tall and lanky Jaden McDaniels, led Federal Way back to the state title game this past season and then went to Las Vegas to watch Jalen lift San Diego State to the Mountain West championship.
“Really, it’s just about playing my game,” Jalen McDaniels said. “I’ve always been confident in myself and play hard. And when we’re all doing our thing and complementing each other, no one’s gonna stop us.”
And all those years chasing a return trip to the Tacoma Dome after taking Wilson to the semifinals as a sophomore, now Jenkins is coming off playing in front of 11,000 in the conference title game and he’ll play in front of the world on Thursday.
“This game can have its lows. Sometimes you feel like you don’t want to play and sometimes you feel like you just want to quit,” Jenkins said. “But what I’ve learned – if you work as hard as you can, that work is going to come back to you no matter where you go. I promise that, and I’ve lived that and experienced that, just like others.
“That’s not just coming from me, that’s coming from Isaiah Thomas or anybody else. Just keep believing in your work and believing in yourself.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
The University of Montana has two players from Tacoma in its starting lineup, former Clover Park and Lincoln standout Ahmaad Rorie and Stadium graduate Bobby Moorehead (Timberline graduate Donaven Dorsey is on the team as a medical redshirt), while Wilson graduate David Jenkins Jr. has been a starter for South Dakota State and Federal Way’s Jalen McDaniels has been San Diego State’s leading rebounder. Here’s how to watch players who play high school ball in Washington state this week:
THURSDAY’S FIRST ROUND
10:30 a.m.: No. 4 Gonzaga vs. No. 13 UNC-Greensboro (TNT)
— Gonzaga locals: Corey Kispert (King’s)
11 a.m.: No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 16 Penn (TBS)
— Kansas locals: Sam Cunliffe (O’Dea, Bishop Blanchet, Rainier Beach)
1 p.m.: No. 5 Ohio State vs. No. 12 South Dakota State (TNT)
— South Dakota State locals: David Jenkins Jr. (Wilson)
4:20 p.m.: No. 6 Houston vs. No. 11 San Diego State (TBS)
— San Diego State locals: Jalen McDaniels (Federal Way)
6:50 p.m.: No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 14 Montana (TBS)
— Montana locals: Ahmaad Rorie (Clover Park, Lincoln), Bobby Moorehead (Stadium), assistant coach Rachi Worthan (Foss), head coach Travis DeCuire (Mercer Island), Donaven Dorsey (Timberline ... medical redshirt)
FRIDAY’S FIRST ROUND
1:30 p.m.: No. 7 Nevada vs. No. 10 Texas (TBS)
— Nevada locals: Elijah Foster (Rainier Beach)
6:50 p.m.: No. 8 Missouri vs. No. 9 Florida State (TBS)
— Missouri locals: Michael Porter Jr. (Nathan Hale), Jontay Porter (Nathan Hale)
SOUTH SOUND MADNESS
Here’s a look at the players from the South Sound playing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament this week:
DAVID JENKINS JR.
South Dakota State
Stats: 34 games (21 starts) 16.1 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.6 assists
High school: Wilson, Sunrise Christian Academy
Bio: Tacoma knew Jenkins could score. Now more are seeing that. He earned freshman of the year in the Summit League and was the national freshman of the week by CBS Sports and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association when he averaged 23 points and 1.5 steals in mid-December. He’s also scored 549 total points, breaking teammate Mike Daum’s previous school record for most points in a season by a freshman. And this came after setting Wilson’s all-time scoring record with 1,852 for his career. But he said it’s his defense that got him into the Jackrabbits’ starting lineup. “I feel like I became better at being a complete player,” he said in a phone interview. “In high school I was more focused on scoring, but everybody can do that at this level. So really just trying to separate my game and pick up full court on the defensive end.”
San Diego State
Stats: 32 games (20 starts) 10.2 points, 7.5 rebounds
Year: Redshirt freshman
High school: Todd Beamer, Federal Way
Bio: He said the biggest difference between him now and when he averaged 19 points, 10 rebounds per game as a senior in leading Federal Way to back-to-back state titles? “My jump shot has got way better,” McDaniels said in a phone interview. “I’m actually a shooter now.” He uses it a lot more now that the 6-foot-10 redshirt freshman isn’t always the tallest player on the court. He said his shot is good enough now to even impress his former Federal Way teammate and 3-point specialist Ferron Flavors, who was the 4A state tournament MVP their senior year together. McDaniels’ younger brother, Jaden, is a 6-foot-9 spitting image of him as a junior at Federal Way, with offers from San Diego State, Arizona and UW among others.
Stats: 33 games (33 starts) 7.5 points, 5 rebounds, 1.2 steals
High school: Stadium
Bio: The biggest difference between Bobby in college compared to high school? “Well, I play defense now,” Moorehead said in a phone interview. “I wasn’t shooting the ball really well last year and if I wanted to stay on the floor I had to do something. So I started to guard and that’s literally what has kept me on the floor. My toughness has definitely improved since I left high school.” And when the 6-foot-7 junior is hot offensively, he really gets going. He averaged 26.5 points, 11 rebounds per game his senior year at Stadium, earning the 4A Narrows MVP. He never got a chance to play in the Tacoma Dome, but fulfilling a lifelong dream of playing in the NCAA tournament is OK with him.
Montana (transfer from Oregon)
Stats: 33 games (33 starts), 17.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists
Year: Redshirt junior
High school: Clover Park, Lincoln, Montverde Academy (Florida)
Bio: He’s been to the NCAA Tournament before – with Oregon in the 2014-15 season. But that was in minimal duty off the bench his freshman year out of Lincoln. Now the 6-foot-2 junior is the most relied on ball-handler and scorer playing for Seattle native Travis DeCuire at Montana, who first recruited him out of Tacoma as a coach at Cal. He made Sportscenter’s Top-10 plays when he crossed up Eastern Washington’s Ty Gibson (an Issaquah grad) in the Big Sky title game. “When I transferred from Oregon, I knew I was going to have a home here,” Rorie said in a phone interview. “This is where I was staying. I knew coach Travis was going to allow me to do what I have to do and get the ball in my hands and allow me to play my game. We had a tough season last year, but we’re now having the season I envisioned we’d have.”
That was such an impressive team at Lincoln his junior year, when he played alongside Tre’Shaun Fletcher, who earned the Mid-Atlantic Conference player of the year this season for Toledo, falling one win short of reaching the NCAA Tournament, and his other teammate on that team, Ar’Mond Davis, is at Alabama (though he’s a medical redshirt this year).