Rainier Beach opens on Thursday afternoon at 12:15 p.m. at the Tacoma Dome against Lincoln of Tacoma.
From the moment he stepped onto the campus at Rainier Beach High last September and met Keith Smith, Sam Cunliffe knew there was a brotherly bond between the two.
Cunliffe had just transferred from private Bishop Blanchet, and would be the second half of what has become a potent 1-2 punch for the Vikings basketball team this season.
The question of just how far the pair will take Rainier Beach will be answered beginning on Thursday afternoon at 12:15 p.m., when the Vikings open the 3A state basketball tournament at the Tacoma Dome against Lincoln of Tacoma.
The bond on and off the court that Cunliffe and Smith have forged over the past seven months has them confident, however. Even with top-ranked and defending 3A champion Garfield potentially looming for a state semifinal at 5:30 p.m. on Friday.
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“They don’t want to play us, I’ll tell you that right now,” Cunliffe said. “Not the way Keith and I are playing right now. When me and him are clicking, nobody can stop us.”
Vikings coach Mike Bethea used examples from the NBA.
Early on, Bethea said, he pointed out to his own stars some dynamic, championship-winning duos — Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal with the Lakers, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen with the Chicago Bulls.
The chemistry on the court, though, still took a little time to build.
“It seems like it happened fast,” Bethea said. “But it’s been a long year getting them to the understanding that they can be better together than working apart.”
Past Vikings teams have had great success working together. Rainier Beach has played in the past four 3A championship games. They won three consecutive titles from 2012-14 before losing to rival Garfield a year ago.
Already this season, No. 2 Rainier Beach and the top-ranked Bulldogs have split two meetings.
Just how much Cunliffe and Smith have developed a chemistry this year can be found in two missed connections.
Against Auburn Mountainview in a 3A state regional game, and with time running down in the first half, Smith saw Cunliffe moving along the baseline and let go an alley-oop pass. The ball sailed, however, getting near the top of the backboard. Cunliffe still lept, and somehow got the ball and attempted a dunk. Even though the ball hit the rim, Smith never wavered in throwing the pass.
“I’ve never seen an athlete that can jump like him,” Smith said of Cunliffe. “You don’t have to throw a good pass. He’ll make you look good.”
Later in the same game, the two missed on another dramatic but tough connection, against double coverage.
“It doesn’t have to be a perfect pass,” Cunliffe said. “When we’re playing together, it’s a different deal. He knows I’ll go get it. He’s been like my best friend from Day 1. We just kind of hit it off.”
“Me and Sam have been hanging out … trying to figure this out,” Smith said. “Because at the end of the day, it’s going to be on our shoulders. It took less time to get confident with each other. But our whole team, we all had to figure out how to play with each other. It’s starting to click now.”
For Cunliffe, this week gives him the chance to end his high-school career with a new experience. Until the Vikings’ 75-61 victory over Auburn Mountainview in the regionals on Friday, he’d never had a chance to play in the state tournament.
“I’ve never been on the floor,” Cunliffe said that night. “I want to cry right now.”
Smith can tell his teammate what it feels like, having advanced to the final with the Vikings a year ago after transferring from Franklin (where he made it to state as a freshman) following his sophomore year.
“No pressure,” Smith said. “We need to just play like we play. The atmosphere will be fun. We’ve played on big stages already this year.”
Each player already is set for next season. Cunliffe will play for coach Bobby Hurley at Arizona State, and Smith will play for Dana Altman at Oregon. But that’s for next fall. This winter, the pair has unfinished business in the Tacoma Dome.
“What really was the defining moment for those guys,” Bethea said, “was the night we lost to Seattle Prep. Keith sat out. Now, they are deferring to each other. They have so much confidence in each other’s ability. They lean on each other.”