Despite a tough 79-71 loss to rival Loyola in the final regular season game of Head Coach Greg Hilliard’s career, the varsity boys’ basketball team remains in the thick of the playoff race, currently holding a record of 12-13 overall and 4-8 in Mission League play to put the team at a tie for fifth place in the league at the conclusion of the regular season.
“If I was totally honest, the four [wins as of press time] is what I was expecting, just based on where teams were on paper at the start of the year,” said Hilliard, content with the performance of his final Wolverine varsity basketball team. “What surprised me about the Mission League was that with all the transfers, the league is down overall, and we have a better chance in most games than I envisioned — we’re playing better than I thought we would.”
“It’s right where we thought we’d be,” added Spencer Perryman ‘15, currently fourth in the Mission League with 39 percent shooting from three-point range. “Beating Chaminade was above expectations, but losing to Notre Dame was below, so it evens out. I’d call it ‘par’ right now.”
Harvard-Westlake surprised both itself and the media with a blistering start to league play, going 3-2 in the first five Mission League games to rise as high as a tie for third place in the league standings at one point. While the team was favored in its first two wins over Sherman Oaks Notre Dame and Flintridge St. Francis, the Wolverines were heavy underdogs during a 75-72 victory against defending Division III State Champions Chaminade on Jan. 16, when Alex Copeland ‘15 took over with 33 points, including eight in the last three minutes, to will his team to the thrilling upset on the road.
“The coaches told me to take over, to put the team on my back, and I just tried to do that as much as I could to get us a win,” said Copeland, who leads both the Mission League and CIF-SS Division 4AA with 25.0 points per game. “I knew that whether I finished at the end or not, my guys would ride with me, which just gave me the extra confidence to hit those shots.”
Coming off that victory, the team looked to keep up its momentum with the first notorious rivalry matchup with Loyola on Jan. 23, playing in front of a full-capacity crowd in the Taper Gymnasium in the only home game of the season that required tickets for admissions. However, despite 20 points from Copeland and a gutsy 13-point, 14-rebound performance from center Noah Gains ‘15, the team fell short in its effort to secure another upset league win, as the defending league champion Cubs escaped with a 58-55 win after a clutch last-possession three-pointer from Cornell commit Stone Gettings ‘15.
“Loyola turned out to be a better match than I thought, because even though they did get their points from their bigs, they didn’t dominate us the way I thought they would,” Hilliard said. “We made enough threes to make it close, but we didn’t finish well inside.”
Unfortunately for the squad, the tight loss to Loyola was the beginning of a rough patch for the team, as the Wolverines went on to lose their next four games in a season-long five game skid. In a road matchup at Notre Dame on Jan. 28, the team was shorthanded in the paint, only grabbing 15 total rebounds while playing without a sick Ray Mueller ‘17 and only getting 14 minutes from Gains due to illness and foul trouble. Still, the team came back from an 11-point third quarter deficit to take the lead with the help of 25 points from Copeland and 20 points from Ali Iken ‘17, but subsequently let the game slip away with poor late free throw shooting in a stunning 81-77 loss.
“Personally, I think we let a couple games slip away from us, we definitely should’ve won a couple games that we lost,” said Gains, who is averaging 10.1 rebounds per game while still on pace to become the first Wolverine to average double-digit boards since 2012. “We’re not disappointed but we’re not happy … we want to do better.”
A severe lack of depth has hurt the team as Mission League play has picked up. Because of season-ending injuries to Parsa Shoa ‘16 (back) and Wolfgang Novogratz ‘16 (foot), the Wolverine squad only has six players averaging at least 10 minutes per game in league play in Copeland, Gains, Iken, Perryman, Carter Begel ‘17, and Aaron Glazer ‘17.
“As well conditioned as we are, a small rotation takes its toll. It’s much more mental than physical because everyone’s capable of doing it as athletes, but we think we’re tired and we think our legs are dead,” said Hilliard. “We need to overcome that because everyone feels the same way, the other league teams are sore and tired, so we need to go at them.”
“It’s been taxing on our bodies,” admitted Gains, currently averaging 23.2 minutes per game. “We knew we’d get tired when Wolfgang and Parsa went down, and every game’s a battle, but we don’t want to be a team that makes excuses.”
With losses in the next three games, including a pair of blowouts to Alemany (89-58) and Crespi (61-36), the team sunk down to 11-11 overall, putting themselves at a .500 record for the first time since the beginning of the season.
“We have to run in transition,” said Iken, who averages 13.5 points per game while leading the entire Mission League in total three-pointers with 68, about the team’s recent struggles. “We can’t walk the ball up the court, because we can’t beat teams in the half-court game if they’re bigger and stronger — we have to push the ball up the floor to get some easy baskets.”
After the Crespi loss on Feb. 2, players and coaches met to discuss the issues plaguing the team, wanting to identify the causes of the team’s slide while figuring out how to get back on track.
“We had been playing a little more selfishly, so we had a team meeting with players and coaches after the Crespi game to iron out some of those issues, because that Crespi game was like the bottom,” Hilliard said. “We scored 36 points, which is incredibly out of character for us, so we went back and revisited things a little bit.”
“It’s about how you respond,” added Copeland. “The coaches have stressed to us that not only does adversity build character, but it reveals it.”
Indeed, the team did respond well by breaking their streak with a 77-55 blowout over St. Francis on Senior Night. Three of the roster’s four seniors scored in double figures in Copeland (28 points), Perryman (12) and Gains (11), while Gains also stood out defensively with 10 rebounds while holding Golden Knight center Brodie Felkel ‘15 to four points.
However, players and coaches argued that despite those aforementioned statistical standouts, the best moment of the night was a last-minute three-pointer from forward Raymond Chung ‘15, who was the only senior not to have scored entering the fourth quarter and sent the Harvard-Westlake Fanatics into hysterics with his memorable shot.
“That spirit shown in the Senior Night game when Raymond hit that three … that’s what it’s all about,” said Hilliard. “Seeing his face because of what other people did that reaffirms that this was the perfect team for me to go out with.”
“It was the best moment of the season,” added Perryman.
Unfortunately, the team closed out its regular season with two tight losses against favored opponents, dropping a 67-59 contest to Chaminade on “Greg Hilliard Night” before falling to Loyola on Wednesday despite a career-high 42 points from Copeland.
“Coach Hilliard is proud of us, and even though we’re competitive, it was a good bout and we have to keep our heads up high,” Copeland said to the Los Angeles Daily News after the Loyola game.
Despite the sub-.500 record, the team still finds itself ranked eighth in CIF-SS Division 4AA according to MaxPreps due to the Mission League’s strength (currently rated as the fourth best out of 227 leagues in California according to CalPreps’ Freeman Ratings) — and in position to move up even further if division foes Bishop Montgomery and Orange Lutheran move up to the CIF-SS Open Division as is expected.
“I would imagine that Crespi would have a very good shot at the top seed, and we played them close the first time,” Hilliard said. “If we play a little better we have a shot, and you can’t ask for anything better than a shot. With the two super teams moving up, I’m expecting us to make a good run in the playoffs.”
Win or lose, the memories set this season will stick with Hilliard and the team’s seniors long after their time at Harvard-Westlake is done.
“I might have had two moments of serious doubt in the Alemany game and Crespi game, but when it’s all said and done, these guys have been phenomenal, so much fun to be around,” Hilliard said on his 30th season running the helm.
Copeland concluded: “No matter what happens, it’s about having fun and enjoying the time on the floor, battling with your guys.”