Shared playing time pays dividends for Lick-Wilmdering boys’ basketball

If you feel a little dizzy watching the first half of a Lick-Wilmerding basketball game, you should be forgiven for the temporary bout of vertigo. For those first 16 minutes, players check in and check out at a breakneck pace, reflecting coach Eliot Smith’s enduring philosophy — if you’re part of the team, you play.

“We’ve always played all 12 guys in the first half,” said Smith, who’s been a part of the Tigers program for some three decades. “It’s a great way for parents to see their kids play, and it offers us a level of versatility. If a certain group is playing real well out there in the first half, we can kind of ride them the second half.”

That egalitarian approach to playing time is paying dividends for Lick-Wilmerding this season. The Tigers have run through their nonconference slate with a gleaming 12-1 entering Thursday. Their lone loss came last week, a 43-38 setback to Branson — historically, one of the best Division V teams in the state.

The Tigers have shown no drop-off from last season’s 25-win squad, which was led by senior guard Micah Elan, now the third-leading scorer for Division III Pomona-Pitzer college.

“We relied on Micah for a lot last season,” Smith said. “But this team is proving they can compete at a high level, too.”

The Tigers’ strength this year is their characteristic depth, but they’re also strengthened by a core group of veteran players.

Four starters — junior Walter Lum and Royce Fong, and seniors Chip Thompson and Avi Leung — have been part of the Lick-Wilmerding varsity program for three years. Not only have they guided the Tigers to 37 wins before Thursday over the past year-and-half, they embody Smith’s selfless approach to basketball.

“Balance is the key to our team — we need everyone to contribute,” Smith said. “And for that to happen, we have to trust each other. Good teammates make good teams, and those veteran guys know that.”

Smith said a key to his team’s ongoing success will be their continuing commitment to defense. The Tigers have been stingy so far, allowing just 38.9 points per game. As they get set to enter play in the Bay Counties League-West — a vastly improved conference in recent years — he said his relatively undersized team will need to scrap at all ends to maintain their defensive dominance.

“We’ll need to rebound the ball, and that requires effort from all five
guys on the floor,” said Smith. “Guards, forwards — we all have to attack the glass if we want to excel defensively.”

The Tigers should only get stronger as the season wears on, thanks to Smith’s commitment to playing his bench. Young players on the squad who would normally be sitting at key moments are earning playing time now, leading them to be more confident and experienced when the games truly matter come February and March.

“It’s good for the players and their families for everyone to play, but really it helps out the team tremendously,” said Smith. “Usually, that freshman or sophomore will be nervous when he enters the game. But our guys are getting familiar with those situations now, and we think that will pay off down the road.”

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