Damien senior point guard Jeremy Hemsley has the school record for points in a career, a full scholarship to San Diego State next season and, at the forefront of his mind, unfinished business.
“After our loss last year in the playoffs [a 71-65 loss to Great Oak in the Southern Section Playoffs], my goal was to come in [as a senior] and win a state championship,” says Hemsley.
After defeating the Cathedral Phantoms 68-62 in a physical, hotly contested clash at Colony High School in Ontario Saturday night, Hemsley and his Spartan teammates are just one step away from making their goal a reality.
rnShutting down the drive
According to Damien head coach Matt Dunn, his team’s focus in practice was “... to control [the Phantoms’] penetration, try to challenge them and make them a jump shooting team.”
Mission accomplished. Of Cathedral’s 64 total field goal attempts, 40 were three-pointers and several others were long jump shots.
The Phantoms’ reliance on their perimeter game did not serve them well. The first quarter was particularly painful for the Phantom faithful to watch as Cathedral was held to just one field goal for the entire frame.
Damien’s offense didn’t fare much better in the opening quarter. Though Hemsley got off to a quick start with a layup followed by a crowd-pleasing dunk in the game’s first two minutes, the Spartans sputtered thereafter, as they failed to capitalize on a handful of opportunities near the basket.
Despite its offensive struggles, Damien’s persistence in completely shutting down Cathedral’s penetration to the basket helped the boys in green build a 10-4 lead after one quarter.
rnThey’ll always have Paras
Cathedral guard/forward Kobe Paras shares a first name as Los Angeles Laker great Kobe Bryant, but there’s another reason Paras has drawn comparisons to Bryant: both possess a versatile offensive arsenal that is extremely difficult for defenses to contain.
This versatility was on full display in the second quarter on Saturday, as Paras exploded for 12 points, including three three-pointers.
“Honestly, the shots he (Paras) made in the first half, there’s not a lot anybody can do about it,” said Dunn. “He made some really hard shots.”
Although Damien didn’t have any answers for Paras on the defensive end, it did have an answer on the offensive end in junior swingman Bryce Peters. Coming off an impressive 22-point performance in Damien’s emphatic win over Cantwell-Sacred Heart in the previous round, Peters, held scoreless in the first quarter, came to life with 10 points in the second to help Damien take a 31-21 lead to the locker room at halftime.
rnGiving the Phantoms Fitts
The Spartans managed to slow down Paras slightly in the second half (seven points in the second half for a game-high 23), but Cathedral’s supporting cast rose to the occasion. Junior point guard Milan Acquaah scored 14 of his 17 total points after halftime, and junior center Lucas Siewert as well as senior center Leandro Amador, both held scoreless in the first half, contributed 10 and eight points, respectively.
Cathedral managed to cut the deficit to as little as five points on a few occasions, but Damien’s clutch shooting thwarted every Phantom surge. Peters continued to have the hot hand (finishing with a team-high 20 points) and Hemsley spread his name all over the box score (17 points, seven rebounds and eight assists), but the breakout performance of the half belonged to senior forward Malik Fitts.
Held to just two free throws in the first half, Fitts found his groove and poured in 14 second half points, which included an icing-on-the-cake breakaway dunk in the final minutes that incited the fervent Damien student section to roar with delight.
“They (the Phantoms) are really, really good, so we knew they’d make a run ... but ultimately, in a game like this, you gotta show great resolve and great toughness, and I thought our guys ... made every shot we needed to make,” said Dunn.
Cathedral, on the other hand, made enough shots in the second half to keep the game interesting, but couldn’t overcome lackluster shooting performance (19/64 from the field), particularly from behind the arc (11/40).
rnUp Next: Campolindo
Hemsley, Fitts, guards Micah Robinson (“The most underrated player on the team!” a euphoric fan said to me after the game) and Andy Torices, and forwards Isaiah McCullough and Thaddeus Smith all came onto this Spartan team as sophomores. After three seasons of experiencing highs and lows together as a unit, the six of them have earned the opportunity to finish their careers on the ultimate high: as state champions.
Dunn can’t think of a group more worthy of going out on top.
“It’s been a long journey with this group. It’s just a special group. It really is,” Dunn declared.
Hemsley, per usual, is on the exact same page as his coach.
“This is a special group of guys we got,” says Hemsley. “I wouldn’t want to be playing with any other group of guys or coaches.”
“[Hemsley] is my best friend,” adds Fitts. “I’m just glad that I was able to play with such a good [guy] like that. ... I had a really good time playing with these guys, and I’m definitely going to miss it. I’m just glad we get to go out with a bang.”
“Going out with a bang” will entail beating the Campolindo Cougars in the Division III State Championship game this coming Saturday at the University of California, Berkeley.
The matchup is an intriguing one, as one of the first major lows the Spartan Six endured together was a blowout 70-47 loss to Campolindo during their sophomore season.
The Damien seniors are thrilled to have the chance to avenge that loss in this, their final season together.
“We’re ready,” insists Hemsley. “We’re going to play as hard as we can. We got one more game, so why not put it all on the line?”