_____________________________ ST. NORBERT CHURCH           RATES ________________________         EBOOK


CIF-SS BOYS BASKETBALL PLAYOFFS – Whitney battles adversity to reach pair of rare feats within program, holds off Rim of the World

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

Moments after its CIF-Southern Section Division 5AA second round game last Friday night, Whitney High head coach Joseph Webber was still in shock after witnessing one of his team’s best performances of the season. Facing a tough Rim of the World High squad, the Wildcats, no pun intended, scratched and clawed their way to a victory despite key players getting injured throughout the game.

The Wildcats program, once somewhat of a laughingstock as members of the Delphic League and Academy League are opening a lot of eyes these days, No one is laughing now after Whitney defeated the champions of the Skyline League 54-42 and advancing to the quarterfinals for the first time since 1987. Whitney, ranked seventh in the division, improved to 20-8 following the win, marking the first time the program had won at least 20 games in over 26 seasons.

“I’m just trying to prepare them an hour at a time, one practice at a time, one quarter at a time,” said Webber. “I was ready to accept either way tonight because the 19 wins was a mission accomplished to me. But we just wanted to make it to the playoffs. Then we beat Savanna [in the first round] at Savanna. Wow, crazy. Then these giants walk in the gym. I’m in shock and I’m elated.”

The Wildcats built a 10-point lead with 1:18 left in the first quarter on a three-pointer from junior Sakeef Sekender. But the Fighting Scots responded with a 12-0 run and the hosts would not score again until midway through the second quarter. Over the final 4:08 of the first half, the lead would change hands seven times with neither team leading by more than two points.

But the half would come at a steep price for Whitney as sophomore Morgan Marks, who missed a good chunk of the season with an injury, went down in the first quarter and would not return. Senior David Song injured his left leg with 2:56 remaining in the half but managed to return in the second half. Then senior star Ethan Wong pulled up with a cramp with 1:07 left in the contest. Still the Wildcats battled through and found a way to win.

“Story of the season, right,” he questioned. “Guys go down, guys step up, guys go down, guys step up. Since the beginning, I’ve told the parents, I’ve told my wife, I’ve told the principal, I love this team. As soon as we had the banquet last year, these guys wanted to start working out. It was just a carryover from last year; our first year here.

“Who would have thought that when those giants walked in the gym that we were going to win,” he continued. “These guys have the heart of a lion; every single one of them. I’m so proud of them.”

“It’s amazing,” said Sekender. “The first half was tough, but we pulled together as a team. With Morgan going out, it was tough and with David getting injured early, it was tough. But we’re a team, we’re brothers, we’re family and we pulled it together. We hit shots and we just played hard.”

Rim of the World began the second half on a 6-0 run to lead 31-26 with 5:31 remaining in the third quarter. But a basket from sophomore Christian Carreon and a three-pointer from Sekender made things interesting. Wong, who had one of his worst shooting performances of the season, put the ‘Cats in the lead for good with 2:02 left in the third quarter. Then with his team up 37-34 following Song’s trifecta, a fadeaway three-pointer from Wong with five seconds left gave Whitney that extra burst of momentum as the third place representatives from the 605 League led 40-34. Wong scored five points but grabbed five rebounds and had four steals. That basket from Wong was a confidence booster, according to Webber, as Rim of the World would score five points in the first four minutes of the final quarter while Whitney padded its lead to 11 points with 4:36 left in the game.

“Definitely, definitely,” said Webber. “He’s the spark plug. As soon as he hits that, everyone is confident. Not only that, we know we’re going to grind it out on defense. So, the defense gets better. Then all of a sudden, I’m sure we turned them over a lot in the fourth quarter.”

“It was just all heart,” said Sekender. “Our team is built around defense and each and every guy has a role and our team is more defense than offense. We win our games with defense no matter what.”

The first basket of the fourth quarter was just like the last one of the third quarter in that Carreon nailed a three-pointer as the shot clock had expired. The Wildcats then maintained leads of nine to 12 points the remainder of the game. 

Sekender led Whitney with 11 points and Carreon added 10 points as both would foul out in the final half of the fourth quarter. Junior Joseph Whitaker, who picked up three fouls in the first quarter, ended the contest with nine rebounds and eight points. But lost in the mix was the fact that Rim of the World’s starting lineup stood anywhere from 5’9” to 6’2” and the Fighting Scots had eight of their 13 players at 6’2” or taller. With all that going on, Whitney allowed less than 45 points for the 16th time in 28 games.

“I just told the boys, ‘good, I’m glad you saw them in warm-ups; now you see how big they are, let’s show them how quick we are’,” said Webber. “And that’s what happened. We turned the ball over a lot because [of their arm] length. But at the same token, we got a lot of tips and steals.”

“Every game for us is a defensive challenge,” said Sekender. “Whenever we play big teams like Rim, it’s always a defensive challenge. But we pulled together.”

The Wildcats, ranked seventh in the division, would host Compton Early College this past Tuesday and came away with a 69-57 win, advancing to Friday’s semifinal contest at top-ranked Lynwood High. The Wildcats will be seeking the program’s first trip to a divisional championship game since 1987 while Lynwood fell to Santa Barbara 75-65 in the 2016 Division 2A title game. In the other semifinal game, second-ranked North Torrance High hosts third-ranked Don Bosco Tech.

“I tried to prep them because the deeper you go, the tougher it gets,” said Webber. “The refs are going to let it play to a certain point. And we really answered it.”