Chino Hills showing off post-December progress

LA VERNE, Ca. – The Chino Hills basketball team that left Las Vegas on Dec. 23 after dropping its final three Tarkanian Classic games wasn’t the same one that showed up for its Baseline League opener at Damien High Tuesday and won in oh-so-impressive fashion, 85-72.

The Huskies, under first-year Head Coach Dennis Latimore, were punched out by 21 (Rancho Christian) and 15 points (Corona Centennial), respectively, during the Nov. 27-Dec. 2 Battle Zone Tournament in Corona.

It was then on to Scottsdale in Arizona where they held 10 point-plus advantage against that state’s best team, Phoenix Shadow Mountain, before dropping an 85-81 decision in the Dec. 8 Naismith HoopHall West.

After an opening-round win over Denver George Washington, the Huskies again held double-figure advantages – into the second halves of each games – before stumbling to Oklahoma City’s Putnam City North and L.A. Westchester in Las Vegas.

There was no lead squandered in the Dec. 23 finale at Bishop Gorman High: The Huskies were blitzed by Idaho’s Post Falls, 80-59.

Fast-forward 17 days and the same personnel – minus senior forward Andre Ball, sidelined because of a left ankle that was rolled in practice on Monday afternoon – came from 10 points down late in the second quarter to topple a team ranked No. 8 in the BurlisonOnBasketball SoCal rankings.

In doing so the Huskies, 9-6 overall going into another Baseline-toughie at home Thursday night against No. 2-ranked Etiwanda, looked back on the track to challenge for a league title and a fifth consecutive trek to the CIF Southern Section’s Open Division playoff bracket – even if the field has been downsized from 16 to eight entries.

Six-foot-nine junior Onyeka Okongwu is the most physically dominant player in Southern California – and a lot of geographical points beyond – and he more than held up that status Tuesday night, scoring 19 of his 30 points after intermission to go with eight rebounds and six emphatic denials of attempts by the Spartans (14-3). He was near-flawless from the field (12 of 13) and free-throw line (6 of 7).

But he was far from the only player to impact the outcome, which is why there remains so much legitimate optimism for the program under its new leadership, even if the Ball Brothers Era ended two seasons early when LaMelo Ball withdrew from school in the fall weeks what before would have – or at least, should have – been a terrific junior campaign.

Six-three senior guard Ofure Ujadughele (PICTURED) – a much underrated element in the Huskies’ run to the CIF SS Open semifinals and second round of the State Southern Regional Open semis – went for 24 points, eight rebounds and five assists Tuesday night.

And juniors Will Pluma (11 points, including three 3s) and Nick Manor Hall (five rebounds and a significant 3 with about five minutes to play) – and this may be the first time you recall reading their names, even if they were part of the programs for the previous two seasons – also made significant contributions Tuesday night.

“Guys are adjusting (to the new head coach) and getting used to playing with each other,” said the recently-turned 17-year-old Okongwu, he of the on- and off-court demeanors that are now the epitome of low-key “calm”, regardless of score or circumstance.

Latimore is a 6-7 a former high school All-American in Arizona whose coaching foundation was built upon two years as a player under Lute Olson (at the University of Notre Dame) and two more under Mike Brey (at Notre Dame).

He has seen gradual improvement in his club since its return from Las Vegas.

It started during practice and continued though four victories in last week’s Huntington Park, not exactly Classic at Damien-like relative to depth of high-quality teams. But it presented a major challenge in the title game, during which the Huskies outlasted L.A. Cathedral, 87-81.

“It (the tournament) wasn’t quite as strong as I thought it would be when we committed to it (in the early fall),” said Latimore.

“But that championship game was a lot like this one tonight – we had to play well for 32 minutes to win.”

That “play well for 32 minutes”-approach wasn’t there in Scottsdale or Las Vegas, obviously.

“No excuses,” Latimore added,” however, we do have a lot of guys with not much varsity experience and guys who are playing different roles than they did last season.

“But guys are growing together and their basketball “IQs” are continuing to grow.”

Damien, which has played in the past three Open playoffs (the last two under current Head Coach Mike LeDuc), got 20 points, seven rebounds and eight assists from senior guard Cameron Shelton, and 17 and 14 points, respectively, from freshman Malik Thomas and senior Eli McCullough.

But, after the cutting their deficit to five points with a little more than three minutes remaining, they missed five consecutive free throws (including the front end of two 1-and-1s) in 15 seconds of playing time and the visitors gradually pulled away.

With two Baseline League games remaining with Etiwanda (Jan. 23 and Feb. 8) and the Chino Hills rematch (Jan. 26), the Spartans are still in position to secure a slot among the Open Division Eight.

But their losses have come to the three-best teams they’ve faced – fellow Open Division candidates Sierra Canyon, St. Bernard and Chino Hills.

But, hey: There’s a month to go in the regular season and a lot of things can change – cough, cough . . . uh, Chino Hills, being a nice example off the top of my head.

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