Winning doesn’t always have to look pretty. Chino Hills has broken into the national spotlight for their head-scratching highlights and unusual offensive game plan that captivates gyms night in and out, but they haven’t always won in blowout fashion during the team’s 51-game undefeated streak.
Friday night’s 91-82 win over Sheldon to defend their Rancho Mirage Holiday Invitational title won’t go down as the squad’s most flawless win, but it’s a testament to the Huskies’ system. Even far from their best, it still works well enough than any other team’s best shot.
“Not everyone can shoot great every game, but we came out with the W, and that’s all I’m worried about,” sophomore LaMelo Ball said after the victory.
The game felt odd from the outset. LaMelo and his older brother, senior LiAngelo, have traditionally carried the Huskies, largely with their pinpoint accuracy from beyond the arc. On any given night, either player could threaten to score 50 points or more.
Friday, LiAngelo finished with 28 points, his brother with 23, but the pair combined for just eight 3-pointers.
And in the first four minutes, neither found the bottom of the net. During that time, Chino Hills reached their largest lead of the first half – seven points – but Sheldon finally found their rhythm and pulled the game within two after the first eight minutes.
With 3:24 left in the first half, off a floater from Elishja Duplechan, Sheldon took their first lead.
Although Chino Hills would retake the lead and own a 40-38 halftime edge, Sheldon and coach Joey Rollings went into the locker room happy with where they stood. With Chino Hills out of rhythm, offensively, Sheldon’s aggressive defensive rebounding kept from helping to bail their opponents out.
And for much of the third quarter, Sheldon, matched Chino Hills toe-to-toe. When the defending California Open Division champs managed to make a three, Sheldon punched right back with one of their own – a trick out of Chino Hills’ own book.
Winning teaches you something, though. After you win 50 in-a-row, you learn to trust your system, and when you’ve been given a green light by your coaches and teammates to shoot at any moment, even when shots aren’t going in, you shoot.
So ahead four points with under a minute to go in the third quarter, LiAngelo kept shooting. After making just one 3-pointer in the game’s first 23 minutes, the senior sank one.
On the next possession, he made another, for the team’s first double-digit lead, 70-60. Against a team that plays such stifling defense, give them just an ounce more of confidence, a 10-point lead and eight minutes to go in a title game, and that equals game over.
“I might miss a lot of my shots, but I’m going to make the ones that count,” he said after the game.
As the final buzzer sounded, the Coachella Valley crowd, who’s witnessed nine of the Huskies’ last 51 wins, were much more jubilant than the players or coaches themselves. After so many tournament titles, All-Tournament honors and trophies, winning a game like Friday night’s has come commonplace.
But it doesn’t mean it’s not important.
“It shows we can win both ways, by a blowout and in a close one,” LaMelo said. “That really builds chemistry.”
For Rollings and his squad, even in a loss, Friday’s result can only help, he said. As a team looking to take a step forward and win a CIF Sac-Joaquin title after losing in the Division 1 semis a year ago, confidence can be built in playing arguably the top team in the country close for three quarters.
A championship there could mean another berth in the Open Division State championships, where they could need this game plan once again.
“This game means a lot of confidence and great experience for the kids,” he said. “Hopefully we can meet them again with a state title on the line.”