After seeing his team capture the Class 1A Southern League basketball title Saturday, Pahranagat Valley boys coach Mike Strong couldn’t help but share one thought on his mind.
“We’re nowhere near where I think we can be,” he said after the win at Sunrise Mountain.
The longtime coach, who has 305 career victories, is hoping a solid week of practice gets his players there.
Top-seeded Pahranagat Valley (23-2), which is seeking its 15th state title and first since 2013, will face Owyhee (12-9) in a state semifinal at 8:15 p.m. Friday at Durango High.
“We put together a couple pretty good games (in the region tournament),” Strong said. “I don’t know if we finished very well against Spring Mountain, but we did enough. Valuing the ball in important situations is going to be key at state.”
Though Pahranagat Valley cruised to a 51-33 win over Spring Mountain in the region final and looked dominating at times, Strong wasn’t impressed with how his players finished the game.
“We were pretty good defensively, but we didn’t shoot the ball like we could,” he said. “Or close the game. We went five minutes down the stretch where we didn’t score. But understanding those situations … we’ve had a week to prepare.”
And Strong said it’s been a good week of preparation, especially for his second unit that has given his starting five a competitive look in practice.
Culen Highbe, a 6-foot-9-inch standout who poured in 27 points in the region final, could be in store for another big performance in the state tournament. The junior won’t need to score, either. He has shown the ability, Strong said, to rebound and find open teammates all over the court this season.
“I think what we’ll see is him getting double and triple teamed inside a lot,” Strong said. “They’ll play a 2-3 (defensive) zone and try to take away the inside game. He has to be ready for that — knowing when to kick the ball out and when to take it to the hoop. But he has the opportunity to have a big game.”
The Panthers already will be familiar with their opponent, as they defeated Owyhee 62-20 in the first game of the season in the Wells Rural Electric Tournament.
Strong, though, has made a concerted effort to make his players forget about that.
“It was early in the season, so it’s hard to tell,” he said. “They’re really scrappy and can get after it. They’re a little undersized for us, but are definitely worthy of being here. We’re going to have to play well tomorrow to hang in there with them.”
Spoken like a veteran coach who has been there and done it before.
“We’re just glad to be a representative of the south in this tournament,” Strong added. “There are four teams here for a reason, and there are four teams that can win the thing. We’re just excited about being in the tournament. We have to play our game and the rest will take care of itself.”