Varsity basketball State semifinal preview

No. 2 Westlake and No. 10 Allen meet in the State semifinals tonight at 8:30 p.m. in an unexpected clash after the latter beat No. 1 Guyer last weekend in their regional final matchup. The Chaps won’t get a chance at redemption for their two losses to Guyer earlier in the season, but they will have a chance to prove they are the new and deserving No. 1 team in Texas.

But to do that, they’ll have to beat an Allen team that is just as versatile and talented as they are and are very well coached by Jeff McCullough. The Eagles showed discipline in slowing down the game and limiting possessions against Guyer to win 40-36, and while McCullough says this matchup against Westlake is a whole different scenario, how the game will play out will likely depend on its opening few minutes.

As we saw when the Chaps played South San in their regional semifinal, without an early lead, Westlake was forced to be content with a halftime score of 15-14 as the South San players dribbled out the clock for minutes at a time. It was a frustrating watch for the fans, but it was also an effective strategy. But when the second half got underway and Westlake began forcing more turnovers, the score opened up, and the Chaps ended up winning by a score of 45-23.

With that said, here’s how each team is going to win (or lose) this matchup:

How does Westlake win

Junior Will Baker put up 26 points and grabbed nine boards against Lake Travis last weekend to propel Westlake to this point, and he might have to deliver big numbers again if the Chaps want to play Saturday night for a State title. Even on a team with four players signed to play college ball next year, Will has often been the anchor and leader when it comes to scoring, so much so that the Statesman did an entire article focusing on him leading up to tonight’s game.

With no player on Allen’s roster over 6-6, it seems almost a given that Will’s going to score, and score big. But Allen’s head coach said the size disadvantage is nothing new for his team and isn’t sure if Westlake has played many teams that can press in the full court in the way that Allen does. In their one matchup against a team that presses heavily, Judson, they nearly lost before a 22-point fourth quarter kept their run alive.

But in that game, Westlake didn’t have senior Keonte Kennedy, and that brings a whole new dimension to this game. If Keonte’s ankle is fully recovered, and it certainly looked like it was or nearly was last weekend against Lake Travis, then Allen will have to deal with four highly capable ball-handlers bringing the ball up the court, as well as two guys that can break the press by themselves in Keonte and fellow senior Matthew Mayer.

Adding to Allen’s worries are how good both Matthew and Keonte are at scoring in the open-court, and if it comes to trading baskets, Westlake is more than happy to do so. But in Westlake’s ideal situation, it doesn’t have to come to do. If the ball starts getting up-and-down too quickly, it could take out the potent advantage Will and 6-8 senior Brock Cunningham create with their size, skill and chemistry. An average tempo game would allow for head coach Robert Lucero’s post-first mentality offense to come into play and really create matchup nightmares for Allen defensively.

How does Allen win

Although I praised Keonte and Matthew’s open-court scoring skills, Allen’s best chance to steal a victory might be to try and exploit that. If they can keep the tempo of the game high with full-court pressure, which McCullough hinted they will do, then they’ll be able to limit Will’s scoring prowess inside and expose what has been a weakness for Westlake so far in the playoffs — turnovers.

Both Luke and Brock have shown vulnerability, especially Luke, who has made some errant and lazy passes when faced with pressure bringing the ball up. It didn’t cost Westlake against Wagner or Judson, but Allen is a better team than Judson and Wagner wasn’t at full strength missing Kevin McCullar. Westlake’s poor transition defense was also noted by Brock as something they need to work on going into the playoffs and at various points throughout the season, and if that part of their game isn’t solid against Allen, it’ll be hard to avoid an upset.

It’s not out of the question to see Allen resorting to their strategy against Guyer and slowing the game down, but after seeing Westlake dominate South San in the regional semifinal as well as Vista Ridge in the District regular season, the Eagles might be hesitant to go down that route. I think Westlake would have the slight advantage in a game like that, mainly because of their length inside. The Chaps also had a full week to prepare for Allen’s sets at that tempo which rely on drawing out the big men to guard quicker guards that can blow by and attack the rim. There are two problems with that strategy against Westlake. First, Lucero almost undoubtedly has a plan to limit switching defensively and will try to keep Keonte and Matthew up top as much as possible. Second, and more concerning for Allen, Westlake’s size doesn’t just stop after Will and Brock. Matthew is a more than capable rim protector at the high school level, and Keonte’s athleticism makes him hard to attack near the rim as well. With that much depth defensively, Allen playing a slow tempo could hand the game right to Westlake.

What makes Allen such a scary matchup for Westlake is how similar they are to Guyer. While the team and player rankings throughout the season have shown Guyer and Westlake to be on another level compared to their peers in Texas, the playoffs have proven that no team is as invincible as they look. Allen’s backcourt will have to make a similar impact to De’Vion Harmon, and from what video I’ve seen of Allen, they can do just that. With penetration from guys like Jerritt Dixon and Jaylen Walker as well as strong three-point shooting, Allen could find themselves scheduled to play Saturday night for the 6A State crown. Jerritt shot almost 46 percent from beyond the arc in the first three games of Allen’s playoff run, and as a team, they’re shooting almost 39 percent from that range.