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GARDEN GROVE BOYS BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT: Whitney’s Song sings perfect tune, helps spark Wildcats to third place finish

December 6, 2022

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

GARDEN GROVE-In case you haven’t been paying attention to the smaller schools, the Whitney High boys basketball team is one that nobody should be sleeping on. Yes, we’re talking about a Whitney program which won eight games last season and hasn’t been to the CIF-Southern Section playoffs since 2015.

Following a narrow 48-47 win over Pacifica High in the third place game at the Garden Grove Tournament last Saturday afternoon, the Wildcats were sitting at 6-1 and off to the program’s best start since the 2004-2005 season when that team won their first three games and six of their first nine games. In fact, it had been 2015 since Whitney began any season with a victory. Dating back to the 2004-2005 season, half a dozen Whitney teams have started their seasons with a win. Oh, the Wildcats are also ranked fourth in Division 5AA.

But what makes this season’s team interesting is that the one player opponents know more about from the past several seasons and who they key in on, senior Ethan Wong, isn’t even the main priority. Others have stepped up through the first seven games, including senior David Song.

“We talked about that to the team,” said Whitney head coach Joseph Webber. “The team is so young and we especially like our offenses; we like our offensive players. But our main calling card is our defense, and the defensive stops we put up when we needed to, especially when they went up, is the most important thing. 

“We give out a defensive award after every game,” he continued. “So, David got it this game. He is the leader of our defense, and everything falls behind him. We’re really proud of the fact that we were able to hang on our defense instead of our offense in the second half.”

Whitney, which has allowed less than 50 points in all six of its victories, scored the first five points of the game and built a seven-point lead three times in the opening quarter with Song scoring six points. But sophomore Morgan Marks was the main force early on, scoring eight points and picking up a pair of steals in the stanza.

The lead would balloon to 10 points in the first few minutes of the second quarter as Whitney’s tenacious defense was controlling the game, forcing 10 turnovers in the first half with junior Sakeef Sekender collecting three steals and Wong two more. 

“The spring we had, the summer we had, the fall…it was all defensive-oriented and then while we were putting our offenses in and catering the offense to this group, those turnovers are indicative of what we are used to when we are playing our game,” said Webber. “On the flip side, our offenses are fantastic. They’re manufactured for our personnel, and what we are trying to focus on with this young team is execution.”

The Wildcats were up 35-26 at the half and continued to lead anywhere from two to six points for most of the third quarter until Wong connected on five of six free throws in the final 2:23 of the stanza. After going 12 of 30 from the field in the first half, Whitney missed on all eight field goal attempts in the stanza and its lone field goal of the half came with 2:55 remaining in the contest, a go-ahead bucket from Song. 

Pacifica would get a three-pointer from Ethan Lee to open the final stanza, followed by a basket from Kenny Ho and just like that, it was a 44-42 affair two minutes in. Ho’s three-pointer from the right corner gave the Mariners their only lead of the game with 4:23 left to play. Then with the game tied at 47-47, Song nailed the game-winning free throw with 1.8 seconds remaining. The game was sealed when Wong stole the inbound pass near midcourt.

Marks led the Wildcats with 13 points and four rebounds while Song, who was named to the all-tournament team, added 10 points. Wong chipped in with seven points, three rebounds and three steals. 

“Even as his reputation shows, teams come after him,” said Webber of Wong. “Ethan doesn’t even wince at that. He’s happy to be on a team that has a winning record, finally. We’re so happy for him…and he is very appreciative of the team that is around him for his senior year.”

Whitney blasted Mesrobian High 72-22 this past Monday in pool play action of the Calvary Chapel Downey High Tournament. It would play the host school the next day and El Segundo High on Dec. 8.

“Obviously as a coach, I would like to win every game,” said Webber. “But because of the spring, and it’s been an evolution of the spring, the summer and the fall…let’s just say I’m not surprised when they win. And what we’ve had to talk about more during this evolution has been the other team getting mad because they thought they were going to beat us. 

“We always tell the guys this is the most pleasant thing to prepare for,” he continued. “They’re pissed because they thought they should have won by 10 and instead we beat them. That is kind of the chip on [Whitney’s] shoulders; that everyone expects the ‘W’ on us. And when we win, don’t be surprised.”

Elsewhere in the tournament, Norwalk High was playing for fifth place in the 12-team tournament but ran into a scoring machine in the name of Cooper Stearns of Irvine High. All he did was score 28 points to help the Vaqueros knock off the Lancers 48-28 last Saturday afternoon. 

Two days earlier, Norwalk had no problem with La Quinta High in a 54-39 decision that evened the team’s ledger to 4-4. The Lancers led the entire way, but after seeing a 13-point lead dwindle down to a point with 3:11 left in the third quarter, Norwalk went on a 23-9 run the remainder of the game. Head coach Brent Campanelli attributed the collapse to the inexperience of the senior group. But at the same time, he said his upperclassmen had the maturity to right the ship at the end.

“I thought [senior] James [McGarrah] was huge playing defense,” said Campanelli. “He got some steals when we needed them.”

Norwalk scored the first eight points of the game and had a 17-4 advantage nearly six minutes in. Senior Vincent Hernandez and junior Jakhari Ramey did most of the damage in the opening quarter, combining for 17 points, three rebounds, three assists and two steals.

After the Aztecs scored the last four points of the quarter, Norwalk built a double-digit lead again until La Quinta cut it back down to nine again by halftime. The Lancers were outscored 14-8 in the third quarter and were in jeopardy of losing its lead when the Aztecs scored six straight points to trail 31-30 with 3:11 left in the stanza. But the purple and gold went on an 18-5 run over the next 8:28 of the game.

“We’ve been really preaching energy and intensity and trying to play faster and play with a little more urgency,” said Campanelli. “With this inexperienced group, that can be tough. But this week has been the focus. The days we did get to practice, that was our focus and I think that was what spoke to that start for sure.

“I think they understood what was going on,” Campanelli later said. “That’s a pretty well-coached team and we knew they weren’t going to go away. But it was more focusing on us; good possessions, really staying tactical defensively and just doing our jobs. We kind of wore them down at the beginning of the fourth.”

Hernandez led the Lancers with 21 points and 10 rebounds against La Quinta while McGarrah came off the bench to add 15 points, all but two coming in the second half. Against Pacifica, Ramey scored 17 bench points, grabbed half a dozen boards and had five steals while the starters combined for eight points and 17 rebounds.

Norwalk began the season going 2-3 in the Rumble for Rosecrans Ave. Tournament, however one of those victories was a forfeit against Horace Mann UCLA Community. The team began action in the Bellflower Tournament this past Tuesday against Mary Star of the Sea High and will also face Rim of the World High on Dec. 8, Servite High on Friday and Bellflower High on Saturday. The Lancers will then visit John Glenn High on Thursday.

“I think it probably helped a little bit,” said Campanelli of the first tournament. “But five-game tournaments are tough. We bit off a little bit more than we can chew in the last few years, but it’s great to co-host that and run that with Sunny Hills. [Head coach] Joe [Ok] is a good friend of mine and so i want to keep doing that with him.”

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