Boys’ basketball team starting to click, beats Loyola 54-45

Boys’ basketball team starting to click, beats Loyola 54-45

Cassius Stanley drives to the basket in 3rd quarter of CIF-Southern Section Division 1A semifinal against Loyola. (Aaron Park/Chronicle)

Friday night brought the Wolverines another sweet win over bitter rival Loyola in the most momentous result of the season. By winning in the CIF-Southern Section Division 1A semifinals, the boys’ basketball team advances to the title game and qualifies for the CIF State Division 2 tournament.

The Cubs burst out of the gates with a 13-2 run to start the game and held the Wolverines to just two field goals in the opening quarter of play.

The Wolverines were able to claw back into the game with a 7-0 run after trailing by ten nearly two minutes into the second quarter. It was during this stretch that the Wolverines started having real and repeated success on the offensive boards, which proved to be a major factor in the Wolverines’ win. One of those offensive rebounds was courtesy of L Simpson ’19, who played his first game since tearing a ligament in his thumb in early January.

“He’s a stick of dynamite,” Boys’ Basketball Program Head David Rebibo said of Simpson. “He absolutely brings a ton of energy and makes hustle plays that we need, and he did a great job for us.”

The Wolverines went into halftime down 25-24. The box score at that point contained a Harvard-Westlake scoring portfolio that, to put it kindly, had room for diversification.

Both teams upped their tempo to start the third quarter, but their scoring tallies didn’t follow suit. The game devolved into a track meet, in which everyone seemed to be sprinting in a race to the bottom. About halfway through the quarter, Johnny Juzang ’20 made a three-pointer to give his team its first lead of the game, 29-27. After four unanswered points from the Cubs, Ali Iken ’17 scored his first points of the game, making a three in the corner to put the Wolverines back in front, and then flashed a euro step en route to a layup on the ensuing possession.

Leading 36-33, Rebibo had a simple message to his team in the huddle immediately preceding the fourth quarter.

“[It was] just about finishing,” Rebibo said. “Finish every play; finish our layups, finish our screening, finish our box-outs, finish defensive possessions, just finish, and they did an unbelievable job. Our defense from the second quarter on was tremendous.”

The Wolverines indeed finished strong–the Cubs didn’t make a field goal in the final 5:49 of the game, save an uncontested layup as time expired. The Cubs weren’t necessarily missing lots of shots in that span, but rather there weren’t many shots for them to take, as Harvard-Westlake grabbed at least five offensive rebounds in that period of time.

Iken made a three to give the Wolverines their first two-possession lead of the game,  but tensions flared just seconds later in an altercation near the Loyola bench with 4:16 remaining.

What exactly happened remains unclear, but a visibly upset Ray Mueller ’17 was separated by Simpson from the throng of players and coaches that had formed. Iken stormed back toward the Wolverine bench and could be heard yelling, “Their coach pushed me!” to Assistant Coach Ari Engelberg ’89. Iken clarified to the Chronicle after the game that he believed one of the Cubs’ Assistant Coaches was the perpetrator.

It was the really big one, the really tall one with all the tattoos,” Iken said.

Iken, who is usually one of the more composed players on the court, was especially angered because he believed the incident to be a repeat offense from the Loyola coaching staff.

“We had the same incident last time we played here [at Loyola], where Cassius got a steal and was dribbling up and then it was their Head Coach [Jamal Adams] who came back and stole it, so that just kind of pissed me off,” Iken said. “Coaches shouldn’t be involved in the game like that…that got on my nerves, and I usually don’t get that angry, but that pissed me off.”

After a short delay, the referees assessed Mueller a technical foul. The Cubs made both free throws but were held at bay from then on out, as the Wolverines ran away with the game, going on a 10-1 run, again powered by offensive rebounds. Simpson’s hustle was on full display in the final stretch, in which he repeatedly came up with rebound off of a teammate’s missed free throw.

I just feel like the energy of the building just overwhelmed my soul,” Simpson said. “My heart was just pounding, I felt great, I knew what I had to do–that’s why I’m here, to do my thing. It feels great to be back.”

Since Rebibo’s arrival, the Wolverines have gone 5-0 against the Cubs, a fact which was not lost on many in Leavey Gymnasium.

It’s indescribable, it’s a great feeling,” Iken said. “Every single time you beat Loyola it’s a great feeling, but to do it not once, not twice, but five times? Unbelievable. I’m just blessed. Blessed.”

In his second season at the helm for the Wolverines, Rebibo has made a concerted effort to get his players to buy into his philosophy, to “trust the process,” as he put it after a 61-45 loss to Alemany in late January. Now, Rebibo is sensing that his team is indeed buying in.

“I thought we did a great job of abiding by what we’ve been talking about and trying to do the right thing,” Rebibo said. “I think we’re continuing to get better and hopefully we continue to embrace the process.”

After that Alemany game, he warned that the team would be a “rollercoaster” until the team started trusting the process. The season was undeniably a bumpy ride, fraught with injury and rumors of internal strife. Loyola fans even chanted “your team hates you” at Cassius Stanley ’19 as he shot free throws in the dying embers of the game.

“You know, chemistry doesn’t happen overnight, it takes time,” Rebibo said. “As much as we love to look at talented teams and say, ‘Hey, they should win,’ it takes time to develop chemistry, to understand identity. We’re young, our seniors and our upperclassmen have been injured and it’s taken some time for us to get into a rhythm.”

But now, it seems everything is finally clicking for the Wolverines.

“These guys love each other and they’re starting to play with each other,” Rebibo said.

Simpson expressed similar sentiments: “[I’m] so glad to be back with my team, I love them.”

Indeed, it seems Rebibo and his players are on the same wavelength. There was perhaps no better sign that Rebibo and his players are at last on the same page than the fact that Rebibo’s remarks sounded strikingly similar to those of Ali Iken.

We were playing good basketball, we were passing the ball, finding the open man, everyone was getting into it,” Iken said. “We were just feeding off each other and we were happy for each other, and I think that was a huge deal.”

The Wolverines will face Pasadena in the CIF-SS Division 1A title game (venue, date, and time have not been announced, but The Chronicle does have a hunch–for more info, refer to the penultimate paragraph of this article). When asked what the team needs to do to beat Pasadena, Rebibo’s answer was simple: “Play together, play hard, play for each other.”

Similarly, Iken was asked if the Wolverines have what it takes to win another State title this year.

“One hundred percent,” Iken said. “We just need to find the open man, play together like we have in the past couple games, and if we keep doing that, I think we’re unstoppable.”

Spoken like someone who trusts the process.

***The Chronicle live-tweeted this game. To relive the game as it happened, click here.

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