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ACADEMY LEAGUE BASKETBALL: Whitney basketball struck by Lightning twice in close losses to Sage Hill

By Loren Kopff
@LorenKopff on Twitter


As the Whitney High boys basketball team prepared to play Sage Hill High in the Academy League opener this past Wednesday night, there were some new looks. First, former assistant coach Glenn Gates had taken over for Wade Morris, who was relieved of his duties last month.

But the most significant look was the play of the Wildcats, even though they fell to the Lightning 65-61 in overtime. Whitney led throughout most of the game and had a chance to win the game at the end, which would have been the program’s first over Sage Hill since Jan. 31, 2013 and the ninth in the past 29 meetings.

“There’s a turnover that we’re trying to make here at Whitney and there’s a wall that needs to be jumped and I thought that we learned some new stuff and they were excited about it,” Gates said. “Unfortunately, we gave them an opportunity to catch back up and then we had to go get them. We did a good job, but although there a lot of loose ends that we have to get better at.”

Whitney, which was down by four points with 3:43 left in regulation, scored six straight points to take a 56-54 lead with 54.4. seconds left. Then with 5.6 ticks remaining, senior Heaven Flores missed a free throw on a potential three-point play, thus giving the Lightning an opportunity to send the game into overtime with a three-pointer.

That’s exactly what happened as Jack Strohman launched the game-tying shot from the right corner at the buzzer, thus erasing what would have been a significant victory. Gates had wanted his defense to stay in front of the Sage Hill players, maybe even foul them to put them at the line instead of letting them pass to Strohman or someone else.

“It was a difference of telling them and actually executing,” Gates said. “That’s where we have to get to. We said play all the up; we didn’t want [Strohman] to catch the ball. The whole point was to get [up on] him.”

Whitney led the entire first quarter and went on a 12-0 run from the last second of the stanza to the 5:53 mark of the second quarter to take a stunning 28-14 lead against last season’s third place team in the league. That would be the last time the ‘Cats scored in the half as the Lightning went on a 13-0 run to trail by one at the break.

“That was the mindset,” Gates said of having the big lead. “It was slow down, be patient, don’t be aggressive. We’ve never been in a situation in that magnitude before. I thought the leap that we made today was identification. They understood that, man, we let this go and we allowed them to creep back in when they shouldn’t have never done that.”

The hosts, who had not played since Dec. 21, still had the lead until Justin Lin’s basket with 2:15 left in the third quarter put Sage Hill in front for the first time at 41-39. Whitney would go on a 5-0 run following a coast to coast basket from junior Joshua Chung to take a 48-46 lead nearly two minutes into the last quarter.

Flores led Whitney with 19 points while junior Jonan Baladjay added 17 points and junior Adi Jahic another 11 points along with seven steals. Senior Victor Chiang grabbed eight rebounds as the Wildcats (3-13 overall, 0-1 in league) will play three games next week, beginning with visits to Brethren Christian High on Monday and Crean Lutheran High on Wednesday.

“We are really confident,” Gates said. “This was the one we wanted; we really wanted this game. We worked really hard, but the mindset is if this is the third place team, you better watch out because when we go to them, it’s going to be a different story. That’s the point.”

Prior to the game, the Whitney girls squad was embattled in a back and fourth contest, rallying from seven points down in the second half to take a one point lead with 5:26 left to play. But Whitney was outscored 10-1 down the stretch and fell to Sage Hill 47-39. It was the first game Whitney had played since losing to JSerra High in the championship game of the Valley Christian Tournament on Dec. 16. On top of that, the Whitney gym had been closed during the winter vacation, which didn’t give head coach Jeff Day much time to practice.

“We knew what Sage Hill was going to do,” he said. “I don’t think [the time off] factored into the game today. We knew in September what the schedule would look like and that wasn’t it at all.”

Whitney’s biggest lead of the game was three points and that game on three different occasions in the first half. Down by five points late in the opening quarter, senior Christine Hamakawa scored the last five points of the stanza, then assisted on a freshman Kim Hosada’s lone basket of the game 14 seconds into the second quarter. About a minute later, sophomore Janelle Ho scored after Hamakawa had one of her 11 steals for the last of the three-point leads.

Sage Hill would score the final six points of the half to lead 27-23 at the break, then maintained a five to seven-point advantage in the third quarter until Hamakawa had another steal and assisted on a basket from junior Justine Wu with 2:58 left in the third quarter. Shortly after that, Ho converted a three-point play for the final points of the quarter.

“I don’t know if there was a turning point, but I just think the biggest thing for us was we didn’t do what I wanted us to do on the press break,” Day said. “We didn’t stay patient and just wait for the right opportunities.”

Sage Hill’s big lead disappeared when Hamakawa drained back to back three-pointers in a span of 31 seconds. But they would be the last baskets Whitney would cash in on the remainder of the contest. Although the Lady Wildcats forced Sage Hill to turn the ball over 24 times, they couldn’t capitalize on most of them, which was a key factor in the outcome.

“Nope, we did not capitalize on two on one’s, one on one’s, three on two’s,” Day said. “We were too hesitant, we were too concerned with having contact made on us.  We did not take the ball strong to the basket. We were always looking over our shoulder; we always had our ear listening for that footstep behind us. We’re not tough when it comes to playing physical.

“I was concerned for the last three years we’ve played them,” Day later said. “Their defense, we’ve never been able to get over the top on the wings. We don’t get our shot off. We’ve worked a lot yesterday and a couple of weeks ago for this game; for the 3-2 defense that they run. Their height didn’t affect us.”

Hamakawa led Whitney (7-7, 0-1) with 17 points and nine rebounds while Ho added seven points and six rebounds. Senior Deja Forest, in just her second start of the season, also had six rebounds as Whitney will now face Preuss UCSD High on Saturday before going on the road to Brethren Christian and Crean Lutheran next week.

“I think Sage is better than Crean, but I think Oxford [Academy] is number one, and then Sage is definitely the number two right now, then I think we’re battling for that number three or four spot,” Day said.