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Taft 67, Fairfax 45 – This was supposed to be Fairfax’s revenge. With Larry Drew having graduated to North Carolina, they were supposed to avenge their loss to Taft in last year’s City Section final.
But it proved to be déjà vu all over again as Taft came away with a victory in the City Section semifinals at the Galen Center at USC and will defend their City Section title against Westchester on Friday in the City Section Division I final.
The game plan was simple according to Taft senior guard Justin Hawkins: limit Renardo Sidney’s touches by double-teaming him, don’t let Solomon Hill get his put-backs and let everybody else beat them on the perimeter.
The end result was a wider margin of victory than last year’s 65-55 victory at the Sports Arena
“We knew the other three players wouldn’t be able to score as much,” Hawkins said.
It was a scheme that worked to perfection as Fairfax could not take advantage of their size and were limited to jump shots and a few put-backs. Sidney finished with 13 points but nine of those came courtesy of three-point shots.
In contrast, Taft was red-hot from the perimeter. The senior backcourt of Hawkins (20 points) and Michael Williams (23 points) combined to nearly outscore their opponents’ total output.
“They’re Division I guys,” Taft coach Derrick Taylor said, “Justin was banged up early in the year and now he’s healthy and looking like that UNLV-bound player. Michael does what he does against anybody and he’s a tough little dude. It’s just tragic that he hasn’t been signed yet.”
The Toreadors were expected to be down after losing three starters from last year’s title-winning team, but they find themselves back in the fold as they face Westchester for the first time since winning the latter’s Tipoff Classic last season.
“Coach said if we stick together during the season, we’d find our way back here and here we are,” Hawkins said.
Westchester 71, Cleveland 56 – For a half, it looked like No. 4 Cleveland would give No. 1 Westchester everything it could handle. Despite trailing 30-26, their defensive intensity and 13 points from Jason Johnson had the Cavaliers smelling a potential upset.
That changed in the third quarter. After Cleveland scored the first basket, the Comets went on a 17-2 run to gain a double-digit lead they wouldn’t relinquish and advanced to the City Section Division I final, their eighth appearance since 2000.
After being knocked out in last year’s semifinals by Fairfax, it almost felt like putting on a familiar coat that they had let someone else borrow for a year.
“Everyone expects it,” Comets coach Ed Azzam said, “The players expect it and as coaches we prepare for it from day one.”
Dwayne Polee and Jordin Mayes led five Comets in double figures with 16 points as they used their balance and defense to wear down the Cavaliers in the second half.
“We had to get more stops because we played tentative in the first half,” Polee said.
In that third quarter, they limited Cleveland’s ability to penetrate and their defense shut down Johnson, who hit zero field goals in the second half as he was hampered by foul trouble.
The senior guard still led Cleveland with 15 points while backcourt mate Prince Obasi finished with 14.
Westchester avenged their trip to the Galen Center last year where they blew a late lead to Fairfax in and lost at the buzzer during last year’s semifinal. This time, they came out a bit sluggish on offensive but relaxed in the second half and it led to a different result.
For the few players left from the team that reached the finals two years ago, next week represents a chance at redemption and the school’s first title in three seasons.
“We worked hard to get here so we can’t let it get away,” senior guard Dominique O’Connor said, “We just have to play Westchester basketball.”