Preview: Boys’ basketball versus Loyola

Grant Nussbaum

The last time the boys’ varsity basketball team met rival Loyola in Taper Gymnasium in 2011, emerging point guard Michael Sheng ’14 dished out five assists, prospect Derick Newton ’14 supported from the sidelines while recovering from shoulder surgery, and upperclassmen Damiene Cain ’11 and Zena Edosomwan ’12 netted 25 and 26 points respectively. The Wolverines clinched the victory over the Cubs 81-74 on the road to winning their ninth CIF Championship under head coach Greg Hilliard.

The more things change, the more they stay the same for Harvard-Westlake and Loyola. With the Wolverine-Cub rivalry returning to Taper, with a 600-win milestone hanging in the balance for Hilliard and with a swan song sounding for Sheng and Newton, the Wolverines’ combustible relationship with their longtime foes will come to a boiling point again tonight.

The two sides will face each other on the Harvard-Westlake hardwood for the first time in three years, the Wolverines will continue their pursuit of head coach Greg Hilliard’s 600th win, and Sheng and Newton will suit up as members of the home team for possibly the last time in the storied rivalry’s history. Friday’s matchup is the penultimate scheduled meeting between the two sides this season, with the next game set for Loyola’s home court.

Following 2010-2011, the two teams’ games were moved to neutral sites in order to accomodate crowds and mediate fire hazard concerns. Sheng is the only active Wolverine to have played against Loyola in Taper previously, as Newton was relegated to the bench because of his surgery his freshman year.

“It’s definitely an eye opener,” Sheng said. “The season is almost coming to an end, and then soon after that, I’ll graduate and go to college. It brings you to realize how fast life is going by and how badly you need appreciate these last moments. For the game, I’m not nervous. I’m just excited. Every time we play against Loyola it’s a great game, and despite what our record says, I think that this one will be close as well.”

Last season, the team went 2-2 against Loyola, and 1-1 in scheduled league play, edging out the Cubs 61-59 in the first league meeting and narrowly falling in double overtime in the second. Newton scored 30 points in the Wolverines’ very first meeting with the Cubs last year in the MaxPreps Holiday Classic. This season, the Wolverines enter at 9-9 overall, while the Cubs stand at 17-1 and ranked as a top five team in California and in the nation.

The fourth year varsity guard Sheng, who scored 27 points in the team’s first league matchup in 2013, believes playing as the true home team will be a difference-maker.

“Playing at Harvard Westlake will definitely change the experience,” Sheng said. “Playing at home in front of your crowd makes everybody focus more. You’re playing for the sake of the whole school. Win or lose, you’ll hear about the whole year.”

“I feel more motivated because its one of my last games in high school,” Sheng added. “I don’t think it takes Loyola to appreciate that. At the moment every game brings out more motivation then past years.”

Sheng, Newton and company will aim to lift Hilliard to the six-century mark for wins in his Harvard-Westlake career. Hilliard has accrued 599 victories during his 29-year tenure at Harvard-Westlake and 734 total wins as a head basketball coach, having served as a coach in Oregon prior to joining the Wolverines. Hilliard’s win tally has encompassed nine CIF titles and two State Championships for the boys’ basketball team.

“The six-hundredth win will mean no more to me than number ten, one hundred twenty four, four hundred thirty three, etc.,” Hilliard said. “It will, however, remind me how long I have been doing this coaching thing.  But, by the way, in all those wins, I don’t remember making a single shot or assisting on one from the bench.  Players won those games and I just tried to help in small ways.”