Once they stepped out of the gym and walked into the cold of the Coachella Valley night, you may not have recognized Chino Hills as the top high school basketball team in the country. Jackets zipped and hoods up obscured their jerseys. Three teammates chased another, the kind of hose play you’d expect from a group of teenagers.
At first glance, the most tepid basketball fan wouldn’t have recognized the Huskies from any one of the other nearly 120 high school teams that flocked to eight gyms around the valley this week for the MaxPreps Holiday Classic. The Huskies don’t boast imposing size, extreme height or the strut of an egotistical champion, even just minutes after outlasting Redondo Union 96-80 in the Open Division finals.
But on the court?
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Anyone within ear-shot of the gym could clearly make out the distinct boom of “ZOH BALLLL” echoing from the announcer’s mic, or the words “BANG BANG” coming out of the mouth of LaVar Ball, the patriarch of the Ball brother trio, on repeat just before each of his sons knocked down a 3-pointer from near half court.
Yes, on the court, Chino Hills left no doubt in their four games this week that they can play with any team in the country. They made quick work of a solid team from Washington state, out-ran a state title contender from Wisconsin and out-muscled a two-time defending state champion from Georgia.
Wednesday’s opponent, though, another top-30 team nationally and one often vying for a CIF state title themselves, would be no cake walk.
“We know them very well, and we know they know us very well. We knew they were going to come give us their best,” said senior Lonzo Ball, who was named MVP of the tournament.
In fact, the Sea Hawks played the Huskies tighter than any team all tournament. Coupled with uncharacteristic shooting woes of freshman LaMelo Ball, who just two nights prior hit six 3-pointers in the third quarter alone, Redondo Union held their own in the first half.
There may not be a team in the country that can keep pace with Chino Hills when they’re at their best, but the Sea Hawks took advantage of an overzealous LaMelo – who took nearly as many shots as his two star brothers combined in the first 16 minutes, yet only produced three points, while Lonzo and LiAngelo produced a total of 25.
In the game’s opening minutes, the Sea Hawks proved they, too, had a shooting prowess that couldn’t be overlooked, as Ryse Williams and Jailen Moore traded 3-pointers with LiAngelo, grabbing a narrow lead for seconds at a time. The quarter ended with Chino Hills up 23-20 as both teams began to gain a rhythm.
Redono Union, though, did what three opponents prior couldn’t: weather the first barrage of buckets that a high-octane offense predicated on long passes and longer 3-pointers was bound to bring. The Huskies began the second period on a 6-0 tear, aided by two Sea Hawk turnovers, while two thunderous slams got the Chino Hills contingent chirping, their boys up 29-20 and smelling blood.
But a 12-4 run in response, with five Redondo Union players scoring six buckets total, clotted the wound and brought excitement to the packed house with a 33-33 tie.
It took until two minutes left in period before any of the Ball’s connected on a 3-pointer in the quarter, an uncommon trend that wouldn’t last. The supporting cast of Elizjah Scott, Cameron Shelton and Onyeka Okongwu each added buckets in the lull, keeping Chino Hills ahead 42-36 going into the locker room.
In the second half, the Huskies played a methodical, well-managed game. After gaining their first double-digit lead of the game midway through, Chino Hills let Redondo Union back within striking distance by the end of the quarter, 70-63, but by then, the Sea Hawks looked spent.
After Leland Green short-armed a pair of free throws that clanked off the front of the rim early in the fourth quarter, the Huskies completed an 11-2 run to start the final period, their lead comfortable at 16 (81-65). The run wasn’t anything flashy and was hardly memorable, but Chino Hills came through when their opponent couldn’t, and that’s what their win – and the tournament title was all about: playing a consistent, focused brand of basketball no team can match.
“The one disappointing thing is Redondo played harder than us, but we made key shots when we had to, made key passes when we had to, key stops when we had to,” head coach Steve Baik said. “I can live with any situation as long as we go into the game wanting it more than the other team.”
As the final buzzer sounded, signaling another tourney title for the Huskies, Lonzo finished with 31 points to go along with an impressive stat line of 12 assists, eight rebounds, five steals and four blocks. LiAngelo dished in 21 points, with LaMelo following with 16. Cameron Williams and Green each notched 16 points for the Sea Hawks.
In the end, Chino Hills is a team whose goals sit as high as anyone’s, and wins are the backbone of it all, even on nights when they’re less than perfect. The Ball brothers want to send Lonzo miles down the road to UCLA without a loss his senior year. Do that, and a CIF state championship and likely a top national ranking would fall right into place.
“We’ve got to want this more than anyone. Don’t be satisfied,” Baik said. “We know we’ve been ranked by a couple publications as No. 1 in the country, so if that’s important to us, we’ve got to fight to keep it.
“The scary thing is, we’re not playing our best basketball. We want to get to the point where we can be, and hopefully, that’s in our future.”