To say the Hazen High School boys basketball group was down in the dumps this season sitting at 1-5 would be an understatement. On the verge of losing four in a row, the Highlanders couldn’t have asked for a better matchup to right the ship than winless Thomas Jefferson High School.
This year and last year, the Highlanders have just not won many games — two last season and so far two this year, with the 65-53 win over Thomas Jefferson on Dec. 21.
“Last year we only had two wins, so it’s not really much to be happy about. But we’re focused on getting better day by day,” said senior Jaiden Damus.
The Highlanders haven’t been getting blown out in many games this year. They have actually played pretty well in a tough 3A KingCo league. A three-point loss to Mercer Island and a game against Lake Washington that Head Coach Alfoster Garrett thought they were in until the end left a bad taste in the mouth of the Highlanders.
“It helps build confidence for sure. We gave away two games we should have won. We’ve had to learn how to execute and play together, which has killed us. But hopefully this will teach them,” Garrett said.
The Thomas Jefferson Raiders kept it close throughout the entirety of the game, even leading for short bits in the second half. The win for the Highlanders marks improvement in a season of despair so far.
“To be honest it’s satisfying, but right now we’re just trying to stay humble and just keep stacking the wins,” Damus said.
Hazen was in control the entire fourth quarter, but Thomas Jefferson cut the lead to single digits on multiple occasions in the final period. This Highlander side has struggled to close out games, so seeing his side be able to finish was what Garrett wanted to see.
“We finally started making some shots. If you saw the first and second quarter, we couldn’t make a shot. But we hit some big shots there down the stretch. That was the difference,” he said.
There were even more opportunities for the Highlanders to take further control of the game.
“They were patient, and played together to move the ball. … I also think we left a lot of points off the board,” Garrett said.
Damus was the star of the Hazen offense against Thomas Jefferson. He ended the night with 29 points, leading all scorers, and no other Highlanders were in double figures.
“I was feeling kind of free. My job on the team is to get everybody involved. Once I had done that, my points were just coming easier. If I keep doing that as the season goes on, you should see more of that,” Damus said.
In the first half, he kept Hazen in the game. Only three other players recorded points in the first half, but Damus was able to help the Highlanders keep the lead, 30-25.
“He was huge tonight. He’s the engine that makes us go. When he makes good decisions, it is infectious for the whole team,” Garrett said on his senior.
In the final minutes of the game, the Raiders were fouling to stop the clock. Unfortunately for them, the Raiders fouled Damus. Well, it could have been fortunate because Damus hasn’t been the best from the charity stripe this season. But in this case, he went 4 for 4, putting the game out of reach.
“That was really rewarding because I mess up free-throws sometimes. I’ve been working on that, and it is something that I have been trying to get better at. So it’s paying off,” said Damus.
For Damus, it was all about the team and doing anything to snap this three-game skid for the Highlanders.
“A win is a win. I’ll take a win every time. But for this group of guys, I think it’s just a learning experience. I think we’re figuring out how to close games and play as a team,” Damus said
Losing is never easy, especially in a league that is shaping up to be one of the deeper leagues in the state at the 3A level. Hazen is still looking to find themselves. and in the eyes of Garrett. being a student of the game is at the center of their success.
“They have to keep learning. It starts with trusting each other. Our decision making sometimes (in losses) has been killing us,” Garrett said.
“Teamwork and effort are the two main things. We just have to learn how to work as a team and give 100% effort. If we do those things, I think we can come out with some wins,” Damus said.