NEWPORT, Ky. — Newport High School senior Marquez Miller took a moment to reflect before one of the basketball season's final practices Monday afternoon.
The 6-foot-5 forward, the team's leading scorer, enjoyed a shootaround shortly after school with his teammates. He said he was grateful for the memories from the past four years in the school gymnasium.
"I've been here summers, late nights, early mornings; that's why I love being here," Miller said. "I don't know even know how many hours. I'm not going to lie. It's been countless hours. Cries, running, can't make the sprints. Weightlifting, everything. But, I love the dedication, too."
As the Wildcats' only senior, he is grateful for a journey to the UK HealthCare Boys’ Basketball Sweet 16 Thursday afternoon at Rupp Arena.
Newport (28-6), making its first Sweet 16 appearance since 2010, plays Lyon County (30-6) at 1:30 p.m. Thursday in Lexington. Newport is trying to win its first Sweet 16 game since 1955.
"It'll be great but we're not there just to win one game," Miller said. "We want to win it all to prove a point to everybody. They had us ranked 11th so we're trying to show them that we should've been No. 1."
Newport coach Rod Snapp, in his 13th season coaching the Wildcats, loves his team's youthful energy and passion for the game. After all, the team's youth has paved the way for a great deal of success this month and into the future.
"It's definitely special," Snapp said. "You just don't know how they're going to be ready or how their mindset is going to be. But, they play for each other. They stick together. They all get along. There's no selfishness."
The winners of 12 consecutive games and the Ninth Region champion, Newport is led by several players including Miller (15.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game), freshman power forward Taylen Kinney (14.0 ppg., 3.9 rpg.), junior guard Jabari Covington (12.2 ppg., 4.7 rpg.) and freshman power forward James Turner (8.7 ppg., 6.6 rpg.).
The team has bonded well in a drastically different outlook since the season-opening loss to Bishop Brossart on Nov. 30.
'The first game was horrible — I'm not going to lie," Miller said. "But we brought it all together. So I feel like we came a long way from the first game to now."
That chemistry is evident every time the Wildcats take the floor.
"We're having a lot of fun right now," Snapp said. "And they make it a lot more fun because they're good kids. They carry themselves well on and off the court. They really enjoy basketball."
The Wildcats have invested plenty of time preparing for a Lyon County team that was the Region 2 champion. The Lyons are led by star junior guard Travis Perry, who averages 32.2 points and is closing in on the Kentucky High School Athletic Association boys basketball scoring record.
The Wildcats understand the spotlight Perry has earned but they're embracing the challenge from a defensive standpoint, too.
"We also tell our kids teams got to prepare for us and our offensive firepower and what our kids can do," Snapp said. "It can go either way."
What is certain this week is how the Newport High School community has embraced this team all season.
"You meet a lot of people, 'Hey I'm a '70 grad or hey I'm an '80 grad,'" Snapp said. "You meet them outside of here. You meet them buying tickets or buying shirts. You see a lot of Newport support. Everybody wearing Newport gear, wearing red and black. Everybody is just excited. It's a good time."
The players and coaches will experience a school district send-off Wednesday morning as it starts a trip to Lexington. It's yet another part of the special journey this winter.
"It's been great because as soon as we were going there they said on the announcements congrats to the team," said Miller. "Everybody was proud of us. They were saying how much they love us and stuff like that. They want us to win it for the community because everybody doesn't think Newport's a great area but I feel like it is. I've been here all my life."