TACOMA — Every coach walking his team into the Tacoma Dome for the first time has to feel a little bit like the small-town basketball coach played by Gene Hackman in the movie Hoosiers, who immediately tries to dispel the overwhelming environment of the state tournament.
Stepping on the court for the first time inside the immense arena, the coach carefully measures the distance from the free-throw line to the baseline, then from the floor to the rim. "You'll see these are the exact dimensions of the court in our gym back home."
The Kamiakin boys basketball team might have felt that pressure last season, when the Braves were newborns in the state basketball world.
This season, at the 3A Hardwood Classic in Tacoma, the top-ranked Braves know what to expect. They know what the Tacoma Dome looks like and how loud it can get inside. They know about the quick turnaround in the locker room and that they won't get as much warm-up time before games.
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This year, it's all good. Kamiakin (22-1), which will face Kennedy Catholic (21-3) at 2 p.m. today in the quarterfinals, has been there before.
"The biggest thing is just being focused on the task. There's a lot of things in that environment that can distract you," said Braves coach Brian Meneely. "This is where mature teams can focus on the task at hand instead of all the other stuff."
Against Kennedy, which won the Seamount League and the West Central/Southwest bi-district championship, Kamiakin faces a team unlike any it has seen this year.
The Lancers are led by two-time Seamount MVP Mitch Penner, a 6-foot-6 scoring machine averaging 28.3 points in his last seven games. Kennedy had lost five winner-to-state games in three previous seasons, but Penner scored 29 points in the Lancers' 73-67 win over Mercer Island on Saturday to send his team to state.
"Coach compared (Penner) to Bryce (Leavitt, CBBN 3A MVP from Kennewick). We have to wall the lanes off and make sure we get out to him shooting. He's definitely a dynamic player," said Braves 6-6 post Justin Pedley, a three-time all-CBBN selection averaging 23.8 points in his last six games.
But Penner isn't the only thing Kamiakin has to worry about, according to Meneely.
"Their role players are playing really well right now. They're playing with great role definition and great team identity," Meneely said. "We need to force them to take as many tough shots as possible. They have four guys shooting 50 percent from the field. It's not that they're unbelievable shooters, they just get very good shots and rarely turn it over."
The Braves have perhaps the top post tandem in the state in Pedley and 6-7 Zach En'Wezoh. Their defense on Penner will be a major factor in the game, but Kamiakin's three-guard trio of Cooper Clyde, Javan Williams and Cody Wilmoth also need to keep up their heady play.
Williams and Wilmoth combined for the Braves' biggest play this season, when Williams stole the ball and fed Wilmoth in the final seconds of a state-clinching 58-54 win over Foss on Saturday.
"Everybody steps up when they need to. We don't consider anybody on this team as a star player," said Williams, an CBBN 3A all-defensive team selection. "We just need to play well as a team. That's what counts."
Meneely doesn't expect too many surprises from Kennedy. He said they will work to their strengths, as will the Braves.
"Within the leagues you know each other so well. At state, you can run your basic things that you run the best a lot more effectively than you do in league," Meneely said. "So at this level, it comes down to matchups. Both teams are playing at their highest level. It's a matter of is their best better than your best?"
Streak: Kamiakin won 6 in a row. Kennedy won 16 of last 17.
Key players: Kamiakin -- P Justin Pedley (19.5), P Zach En'Wezoh (12.5), G Cooper Clyde (10.0); G Javan Williams (7.3). Kennedy -- P Mitch Penner (23.9), G Cole Madison (8.8); G A.J. McGrew (6.8); G Anthony McCluskey (6.5).
State appearances (including 2012): Kamiakin 8. Kennedy 3.
Last state appearance: Kamiakin 2011. Kennedy 2005.
State trophies: Kamiakin 5 (second in 1992; third in 2011; fourth in 1993, 1995; sixth in 1994). Kennedy 1 (sixth in 1987).