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CIF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA BOYS BASKETBALL REGIONALS-Whitney rallies in third quarter, continues momentum to get past Sotomayor

March 1, 2023

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

LOS ANGELES-The joy of the current system put in place for the CIF State Regionals for basketball is you can lose in a Southern Section divisional semifinal game and know your season is not over. Such was the case for the Whitney High boys basketball team, which was blasted by Lynwood High 93-46 on Feb. 17 in a Division 5AA semifinal game.

Knowing that the Wildcats still had at least one more game in their season, head coach Joseph Webber made sure his team stayed focused, kept their eyes on target while crediting the coaching staff for everyone staying balanced and doing a slow build up to what was next.

That target was Sotomayor High, the CIF-Los Angeles City Section Division IV champions, which proudly displayed its trophy on the scorer’s table. Despite a sluggish first half, the Wildcats came out with a vengeance in the third quarter, turning a two-point halftime deficit into a five-point lead heading into the fourth quarter. From there, Whitney built its lead to go on for a 52-46 win over the Wolves this past Tuesday night in a Division 5 first round regional game. Whitney improved to 22-9 as it continues to enjoy one of the best seasons in the program’s history. 

“We talked about at halftime how they were trying to pressure us to speed up what we were doing,” said Webber. “We made a plan to be more poised; attack the pressure instead of swinging the ball, and that’s what we did. That’s why [sophomore] Morgan [Marks], [junior] Sakeef [Sekender] and all those guys got big buckets for us in that third quarter run.”

Trailing 29-26 midway through the third quarter, Sekender’s basket was the beginning of an 8-0 run to close out the stanza. Included in that rally was a rebound by Marks who went coast to coast to score the eventual game-winner with 2:15 left in the third quarter. 

Less than a minute into the fourth quarter, senior David Song drained a three-pointer off the glass to make it 37-32 and the Wildcats kept pushing and pushing. Then with 4:01 remaining in the contest, Sekender hit a pair of free throws to put the ‘Cats up by 10, their largest lead of the game. 

But the story of the game was the defensive performance by Whitney, which allowed a combined 13 points in the second and third quarters, forced seven turnovers in the second quarter and limited the Wolves to six attempts from the field in the third quarter. 

Whitney, the 11th-seeded team in the division for the regionals led for the first 3:06 of the game until Bryan Hernandez gave Sotomayor its first lead. The teams would trade the lead four more times in the first half and when Freddy Lopez sank the second of his consecutive baskets, the sixth-seeded team had its largest advantage of the contest at 25-18. But Sekender had his lone three-pointer and Marks scored on the second, and last, offensive rebound the team would get to conclude the half.

“We told the boys, they played the very best they could and we haven’t played our best yet,” said Webber. “And when we go up there in the second half, it’s a great game and this is how a great game should be, but we’re going to show them what we’re made of in the second half. It’s happened time and time again with these guys and they have always addressed it.”

One of the heroes of the second half was sophomore Christian Carreon, who came off the bench to score 13 points on five of six shooting from the field. His second three-pointer of game made it 40-34 nearly two minutes into the fourth quarter and he added another one at the 4:42 mark to make it 44-36. For the game, Whitney was seven of 17 from beyond the arc.

“Those three-pointers kept us in the game when they wanted to space it out,” said Webber. “And that’s what Christian does. As we talk about it, he comes off the bench and hurts you.”

Marks and Song each had 11 points with the former collecting three rebounds and three steals while the latter had five rebounds and two assists. The 11 points were the most for Song since scored a season-high 12 points against Pioneer High on Jan. 18 while Marks had his best scoring performance since Dec. 9 when he had 14 points against Wiseburn-da Vinci. 

“Usually, it’s someone stepping up and tonight it was our stars stepping up,” said Webber. “All those guys came out and played so hard and finished strong. It was really impressive.”

Next up for the Wildcats is a second round tilt at third-seeded Ramona High, the San Diego Section Division III runners-up, on Mar. 2. The Bulldogs (22-10) defeated Tarbut V’ Torah High 75-38 this past Tuesday. The winner of this game will face either seventh-seeded Littlerock High or second-seeded Pacifica Christian/Santa Monica High on Saturday in the semifinals. 

On a side note, the Wildcats need one more win to match the school record for most playoff victories in the same season. Whitney won all five playoff games in the 1985-1986 and 1986-1987 seasons on its way to capturing titles in the Southern Section Small Schools division.