BY JEREMY WOO
CHICAGO — Here we go.
Wednesday’s two Chicago Public League semifinal games at Chicago State University produced the matchup that not only the city, but the entire country has been waiting for.
Jahlil Okafor and Whitney Young will face Cliff Alexander and Curie in Friday’s city championship game.
It almost never materialized. Both teams narrowly advanced, a testament to the Public League’s depth and talent. The city playoffs have been full of heavyweight battles, perhaps none more dramatic than Wednesday night’s games.
Curie staved off a scrappy Hyde Park team in an exciting first game, 58-56. Whitney Young battled back from down 15 points at halftime for a memorable 55-53 win against a hungry, senior-led Orr squad.
The blue chip big men have earned the opportunity to go head to head for the trophy, the bragging rights and potentially the No.1 ranking in class of 2014.
Alexander and Okafor haven’t met on the court since last season, when Young prevailed 62-58 in an Illinois sectional playoff. Since then, they’ve spent a summer as teammates on the Mac Irvin Fire and made national waves with their respective commitments to Kansas and Duke.
Their characteristically impressive play this season has continued to spark the debate about which player is better. Expect nothing less from Friday’s game.
“Me and Cliff are really good friends,” said Okafor, “but when we step between those lines, it’s going to be a good battle. But it’s pretty much Whitney Young vs. Curie, they’re No. 1 in the state, we’re considered No. 2. It’s going to be really fun.”
“I want that matchup right there,” Alexander told SNY.tv on Sunday. He also said he’d “earned” the number one ranking in the 2014 class with his play.
On Wednesday, the 6-foot-10 Okafor spurred on the Dolphins scoring 16 points and grabbing 14 rebounds with three blocks. A couple hours earlier, the 6-foot-9 Alexander posted a triple-double with 10 points, 10 rebounds and 10 blocks. And though both played huge roles in their team’s victories, neither was even at their most dominant.
It’s fair to expect a little added motivation in the next one.
“It’s gonna be a matchup for the ages,” said Whitney Young senior guard Miles Reynolds. “This is probably gonna be the most anticipated game in CPS history. Two great teams, the top two teams in the state and arguably the top two teams in the nation going at it. It’s going to be a great atmosphere.”
Whitney Young enters the game off two gutsy playoff victories, taking down Morgan Park on Sunday before Wednesday’s memorable comeback.
Reynolds, a Saint Louis commit, has played with a bandage on his forehead since taking a knock to the head in the Morgan Park game that required stitches. 6-foot-9 senior forward and Georgetown commit Paul White has been battling a nagging groin injury. Unheralded senior Erwin Henry was the hero against Orr, leading the Dolphins with 18 critical points.
Their road to a repeat city championship goes through Alexander and a talented Curie team including guard Joseph Stamps, a senior; brother Joshua Stamps, a junior; and sophomore Devin Gage. Whitney Young would be the first back-to-back CPL champs since Simeon and Derrick Rose accomplished the feat in 2006 and 2007.
“That’s something I’ve been thinking about since we won it last year,” Okafor said of the potential title. “It’s a big deal to me. I talked to Jabari [Parker], and that’s something he wasn’t even able to do [at Simeon from 2019-2013]. If I’m able to do that, it’d be really humbling for me.”
There’s a chance Curie and Whitney Young will meet again next month, again placed in an extremely tough Chicago sectional. But that’s beside the point, and no guarantee.
“Really it’s not a Cliff-Jahlil matchup, it’s a Whitney Young-Curie matchup,” said Whitney Young head coach Tyrone Slaughter. “But fortunately, two great players are going to play, and I think everybody in Chicago should show up. We may never see this again.”
If you ask Okafor, all that matters is Friday’s final score.
“I think I’ll get the better of [Cliff] if I win the game,” he said. “No matter the outcome between the two of us, if I win the game, I think that’s getting the better of him. No doubt.”