No one with an ounce of intelligence would dispute the fact that the Mission Oak Hawks are the superior team in Tulare County boys basketball.
Mission Oak plays a brand of basketball that is at least a level ahead of any other team at this current state, and there is no foreseeable end to their area reign.
It is now time for the rest of the Central Section to become aware of Hawk Basketball.
The Hawks earned their first trip to the Central Section Basketball Championships with a sound 67-46 victory over the third-seeded Mt. Whitney Pioneers Wednesday night at Mission Oak High School.
“It’s like a dream come true,” Mission Oak junior Blake Shannon said. “Every single for almost the past week, we’ve been saying we just need to win one more game, just 32 minutes of play more and we would reach our goal. And now we’re here.
“I always had the patience that this day would come, but right now, it’s just overwhelming me.”
No. 2 Mission Oak (27-3) will face No. 1 Independence (31-1) in the Division III championship game Saturday at Selland Arena. Game time is 4 p.m. Independence demolished No. 5 South 69-17 in the other Division III semifinal on Wednesday.
“It feels really good,” Mission Oak coach Myron Epps said of his team earning their first trip to Selland Arena. “These guys have worked so hard from Day 1 to get to this point. I couldn’t be prouder of them. We’re going to face a very good Independence team. We will be ready to play.”
This game was nothing close to the teams’ initial meeting this season, a 76-73 Hawk win on Dec. 10.
Mission Oak took the lead for good at the 5:25 mark of the first quarter (6-5), and it had extended that advantage to an already comfortable 12 points — 21-9 — by the end of the period.
The Pioneers were unable to get within 10 points of the Hawks after that point.
Mission Oak was up 34-18 at halftime, and 51-30 at the end of third quarter.
Mt. Whitney needed one of its better shooting nights of the season, and that did not happen. The Pioneers were 18-of-56 from the field (32.1 percent).
Where did things go so wrong for Mt. Whitney (18-10)?
It really didn’t have much to do with the game plan of Mt. Whitney coach Bob Aguilar and his staff.
If someone had told Aguilar before the game that his Pioneers would contain Shannon to 15 points and keep Mission Oak senior center Kollan Mundley to single digits — and add in that the Hawks’ most pivotal player would have to be a freshman who scored just five points in the teams’ first meeting — Aguilar would have taken it in a second and, as another highly successful Tulare County coach likes to say, “All day every day and twice on Sundays.”
But Mission Oak freshman Austin Molezzo is clearly not the same player that he was to begin the season.
Just three months after making his varsity debut, not only is Molezzo clearly an important piece to the Hawks’ starting lineup, he is establishing himself as one of the Central Section’s top players for the Class of 2016 — he is by a few accounts Tulare County’s best overall athlete for the Class of 2016.
And what a show Molezzo put on in front of the capacity crowd at Mission Oak.
Molezzo led all players with 31 points. He established his dominance from the outset with nine first-quarter points. His first field goal of the game was a 14-foot turnaround jumper that many players at the next level have trouble making.
Mt. Whitney made four 3-pointers as a team. Molezzo had five by himself.
While almost everyone in the gym was cognizant of what type of star-making performance was being produced by Molezzo, the freshman wasn’t quite aware of his valuable contribution.
“I had 31 points?” Molezzo asked with a huge look of bewilderment. “I had no idea. Hey, any one on this team can score 30 points. We’ve all worked hard to get here. We’re not done yet, not by a long shot. We want to win this thing.”
Ask anyone associated with the Hawks, and there was not a hint of surprise that the freshman was able to have such a dominant game.
“The kid can play. He can flat-out play,” Epps said of Molezzo. “He has a great, natural IQ for basketball. He has a lot of potential. He could be the best basketball player that has come through Mission Oak.”
No arguments from Molezzo’s teammates.
“He was magnificent,” Shannon said. “But we’re not shocked by this. Every day he destroys all of us in practice, every day.
“I think this is just the beginning for Mission Oak basketball. The freshmen and sophomores on this team are going to be better than [the current] juniors and seniors. They all know how to play.
Now we just have to win one more.”