MERRILLVILLE | Every day like clockwork, Jelani Pruitt walks into the locker room and puts his stuff on the end of a bench. Then, the 6-foot-4 senior knocks on the window of the coach's office.
He smiles and waves. Merrillville coach T.J. Lux mimics him back through the window.
"When he got here as a freshman he was gangly and goofy," Lux said.
Pruitt said "I tickle him sometimes," and during team chats he often pokes Lux with his finger.
But don't think a guy in a clown mask follows them around with a snare drum to riff after every punchline. Pruitt is a fierce competitor, just like his coach.
"I only came here so I could be coached by coach Lux," Pruitt said. "He's the best coach around."
Last season on Dec. 15, the Pirates were preparing for a game at Lake Central the next night. The topic of Glenn Robinson III came up. One players said if Tre came into the lane, "Get out of the way."
They all knew how good Robinson was, but the comment made Lux and Pruitt angry.
"No one wanted to see us posterized by Glenn," Lux said. "It made me mad. It made Jelani mad. He is such a competitor he did not want to back away from anyone."
The next night Robinson got a breakaway and went in for a dunk. Pruitt appeared out of nowhere, running from about 15 feet behind. He got a great block and denied the superstar, even though a foul was called.
If ever Merrillville's program needed to not back down, it would be today. The Pirates play top-ranked Munster in the semifinal of the Class 4A Michigan City Regional.
Munster (25-0) is undefeated and has been Indiana's No. 1 team for about two months. The Mustangs beat the Pirates 61-49 on Feb. 2.
"We have to start off with a lot of energy," Pruitt said. "We have to focus more on our defense. If we do, our offense will come around. We have to take good shots, like coach Lux says."
Merrillville (20-3) did have a seven-point lead on Munster in the third quarter, before the red and black clinic started.
"We took bad shots and did not execute our offense in the fourth quarter," Lux said. "Those guys have been running the same offense since the seventh grade. They all know their roles. We let it slip away.
"They slowly squeeze the life out of you."
Pruitt now averages 12.2 points and 3.4 rebounds a game.
He was on the B team as a freshman and "traveled every time he touched the ball," Lux said.
He worked hard and got better. Every day. Every year. Pruitt's been a key varsity contributor the last two years. His loose, fun personality is good going into a game this big.
But his ice-in-the-veins desire is bigger.
"After my freshman year, my love of the game changed," Pruitt said. "It grew stronger. I grew stronger. I know you should never be scared of anyone."