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26th ANNUAL GRIZZLY CLASSIC : Whitney shooting goes cold in third quarter, falls in championship game of Grizzly Classic

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

DOWNEY-Very rare has any Whitney High boys basketball team played for any type of championship in a non-league tournament, or come away with any type of serious hardware prior to league competition.
But the Wildcats were in that position when they squared off against South Pasadena High last Friday night in the championship game of the 26thAnnual Grizzly Classic, hosted by Calvary Chapel Downey High. 

Whitney was on upset alert, leading the undefeated Tigers, ranked third in the CIF-Southern Section 4A polls, by 10 points late in the first half. But a one for 10 shooting performance in the third quarter allowed South Pasadena to dominate the stanza and go on to beat the Wildcats 62-51.

“I’m super proud of the guys,” said Whitney first-year head coach Lance Convento. “I told them already they’re up by 10 points and I wasn’t sure what division they’re in, but I knew they were [in a] higher division than us. I told them to keep their heads up and be proud. Just by making it to the championship was an accomplishment in itself.”

Whitney took its first lead of the game nearly halfway through the first quarter on the second and last basket from sophomore Andrew Sim. The Wildcats then shot three baskets from downtown in the second quarter, two from junior Dhilan Amin, to go up 28-18 with 55.8 seconds left in the half. It would be the largest lead for the ‘Cats in the game.

But Whitney came out of the locker room ice cold and missed its first nine shots from the field. Meanwhile, the Tigers scored the first eight points of the third quarter to tie the game, and after a free throw from senior Zaafir Haider, went on a 15-0 run to put the game away.

“I think we had a defensive collapse,” Convento said. “In the first half, we played really good defense. In the second half, the intensity just wasn’t there, and the energy wasn’t there. Sometimes basketball is a game of ups and downs and we came out with less energy in the second half.”

Whitney tried to get back in the game by scoring six straight points in a span of 1:22 but wouldn’t get closer than eight points the remainder of the way. Whitney was also hampered with foul trouble to junior Ade Adeleye, who picked up his third foul with 2:53 remaining in the first quarter and was on the bench for the remainder of the half, then the first 8:50 of the second half. Still, he ended with eight points but one rebound.

Senior Victor Ufondu led the ‘Cats with 15 points and had four steals while Amin added nine points and three rebounds. Haider and freshman Ethan Wong were named to the all-tournament team.

“They had an awesome game today,” Convento said of Amin and Ufondu. “Victor is coming off an injury and came out like he didn’t miss a beat. He missed about a week or so and came out…he’s one of our seniors and he acted like a senior and came out and played. Dhilan came out and shot the lights out. He played with great confidence, a great heart and great intensity.”

The loss dropped Whitney to 4-7 as it visited Santa Ana High this past Wednesday. Whitney will also face Marquez High on Monday in the first game of the Shoemaker Showcase. Already, the ‘Cats have equaled the win total of last season and are seeking the program’s first winning campaign since the 2011-2012 season. In addition, Whitney is looking to get back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2014-2015 season.

“It’s a small step in what we’re trying to accomplish,” Convento said. “We set some goals at the beginning of the season and we still have a long season. So, we still have a lot more goals to accomplish. It’s all about the process and I told the guys, it’s not about the outcome. We keep focusing on the present and focus on the process.”

Prior to the game, Artesia High was playing Nogales High for third place and lost a 10-point halftime lead, then rallied late in the game and eventually won in overtime 57-56. The winning points came on a pair of free throws from junior Jonathan Nelson with 1.2 seconds remaining.

“Any tournament that you’re in, you want to win first place and going into the [Calvary Chapel Downey] tournament, that was our goal,” said Artesia co-head coach Jeff Myles. “The first game of the tournament we didn’t play well at all and we played a good South Pasadena team with a really good player, and that was our fourth loss in a row. So, as a team, we were really in a bad place. After the game, we had a team meeting and we came together as a team.”

The Pioneers trailed just once in the first half and had a strong second quarter where there outscored the Nobles 14-4. Nelson, who was named to the all-tournament team, had eight of his nine first half points in the second quarter and the team shot six of 14 from the field.

Artesia still had a 10-point lead (34-24) with 4:42 remaining in the third quarter when Nogales began to chip away at its deficit. But it wasn’t until the early minutes of the fourth quarter when the Nobles made a big dent into Artesia’s lead and went on a 7-2 run to trail 41-40. With 3:48 remaining in regulation, Shaunte Castaneda hit a three-pointer to put Nogales up 43-41. 

But the Pioneers rebounded and scored the next eight points, thanks to a pair of three-pointers from senior Miguel Javier. Sophomore Troy Linao would then hit a free throw with 23.6 seconds remaining to make it 50-48 before Victor Rendon’s basket with five seconds left sent the game into overtime.

“Even though we have eight seniors on the team, we are a young, inexperienced team and young teams can still make mistakes, even after playing 16 games already on the season,” Myles said. “I think our youth showed when we blew the 10-point halftime lead. We still had a chance to win it at the buzzer, and as a coach, the thing I am most proud of is we didn’t get down on ourselves.”

Javier would hit his sixth trifecta with 1:16 remaining in overtime to give the Pioneers a 55-54 lead before Jacob Romero put Nogales up by a point with 6.5 ticks left in the game. Nelson posted a game-high 20 points with five rebounds and two assists while Javier scored 18 points, all on three-pointers, and had three assists. Sophomore Tyler Miller grabbed seven rebounds and had two assists.

“It’s taken Jonathan a while to get used to playing high school basketball, but Jonathan has been playing really well for us the last few games,” Myles said. “Miguel has been sick, and he missed about four games and I think he has been slowly getting his rhythm and shot back.”

The Pioneers evened their record at 8-8 and after playing 16 games in 26 days, will get some well-deserved time off before their next game. Artesia will next be in action on Jan. 3 against Bishop Amat High as part of the Rancho Mirage Showcase.

“Over these next three weeks, we are going to get back in the gym, watch film, get in the weight room and try to do everything we can to try to get better as a team,” Myles said.