For high school basketball fans in Los Angeles, there’s only thing more exciting than witnessing the Westchester Comets play the Fairfax Lions: watching the fierce rivals duke it out with the City Championship on the line.
Roughly 500 fans were treated to such an occasion on Saturday night, as third seeded Westchester and top seeded Fairfax, a storied rivalry that has produced eight NBA players and countless memories, squared off in the title game at Cal State Dominguez Hills.
The team’s rich history wasn’t the only reason that this matchup felt familiar. When the two teams last met for a Senior Night showdown at Westchester on Feb. 11, the Comets overcame a 16-point deficit to earn a 50-49 victory over the Lions in stunning fashion. Flash forward to Saturday’s contest, which got off to a very similar start.
All night long, Fairfax’s length, quickness and toughness on the defensive end prevented Westchester from establishing any sort of rhythm offensively.
“We played solid, solid defense,” Fairfax head coach Harvey Kitani said of his squad. “We made good plays on that end and we were fortunate not to break down and allow easy looks to the basket. We tried to make it hard on them [Westchester], and to the credit of our guys, they stuck to it.”
Fairfax was able to convert its hard-earned defensive stops into an efficient offensive flow. Junior forward Donald Gipson and senior guard Isaiah Ajiboye both had the hot hand early on, putting in 14 and eight first half points respectively, bringing the Lions to a 27-17 lead as they headed into the locker room.
The second half brought about more of the same for both teams. Ajiboye picked up right where he left off (16 points for the night), and senior guard Lorne Currie, held scoreless in the first half, exploded for seven of his 10 points in the third quarter. Despite strong second half efforts from Westchester senior star guard Ellis Sallahudin (a game-high 19 points), fellow senior guard Jordan Terrell (eight points) and junior forward L’Keilynn Taylor (seven points, all in the second half), it just wasn’t the Comets’ night.
With two minutes left to play and Fairfax holding a commanding 50-32 lead, everyone in the building seemed ready to hand the trophy over to the Lions. Everyone except Sallahudin. The plucky guard nailed three three-pointers in the ensuing 70 seconds, fueling a torrid 13-3 Westchester comeback. Before you could say “déjà vu all over again,” Kitani was forced to call timeout and calm his players down with less than a minute left to play.
“I reminded the guys about the last time we played them [Westchester],” said Kitani, “when we had a 16-point lead and they ended up beating us … we just wanted to play solid defense and get stops.”
“The key was everybody staying together,” added Gipson, who finished with a team-high 18 points. “[We wanted to] come together as a team and find a way to get a stop. And that’s what we did.”
Indeed, Westchester’s comeback bid this time around, though impressive, was too little, too late. Fairfax allowed only two Taylor free throws for the remainder of the contest, and hung on for a 56-47 victory, giving the Lions not only the city title, but also the bragging rights in the rivalry’s most recent installment.
“When you play for the city championship, it [the rivalry] definitely adds to it,” explained Kitani, “but we’re just so happy to win the city title. We’re a city team and the city means everything to us.”