Westchester Ousts Dolphins in City Playoffs

Junior guard Aaron Johnson drives for a layup during a January 14 game against Westchester.	 Rich Schmitt/Staff Photographer
Junior guard Aaron Johnson drives for a layup during a January 14 game against Westchester. Rich Schmitt/Staff Photographer

The Palisades High boys basketball team found itself on both sides of a hat trick last week, beating Fairfax on Tuesday but losing to Westchester in the semifinals of the City Section Division I playoffs on Saturday. After a rousing 54-46 home win over Fairfax, its third in a row against the Lions this season, the Dolphins lost for the third time to Westchester, 62-49, in a hard-nosed, physical contest at Cal State Dominguez Hills. The Comets, who have won 10 City titles, led just 12-4 after one quarter before both offenses came to life. The Dolphins closed to within 29-26 at halftime, but saw things fall apart in the second half. In the third quarter, Westchester outscored Palisades 17-6, with 10 of its points coming at the free-throw line. The Dolphins’ managed one rally in the second half, culminating when junior guard Aaron Johnson capped a 10-2 run with a three-pointer to make it 49-42 with 5:48 to play. “We played hard, but not particularly smart,” Pali head coach James Paleno said after addressing his team following the loss. “We missed a lot of our rotations and had some mental breakdowns. We rebounded well, but we didn’t put the ball in the basket.” On a night when PaliHi found itself in foul trouble early and often, no player reached double figures in points scored. Junior guard Louis Kurihara led the Dolphins with nine points, senior guard Tyler Hildreth had eight points and five assists, and senior wing Ammar Rehman had nine rebounds. “We continued to turn the ball over,” Paleno lamented. “They scored and we didn’t, and when you can’t score, you can’t set up your press.” Still, getting to last Saturday’s game against Westchester was quite a feat for the Dolphins, who had to overcome an always tough Fairfax team. The Dolphins have now beaten the Lions seven straight overall. “It is hard [to do],” head coach James Paleno said after the Fairfax win. “I tried to avoid saying it to the kids all week, especially with a team like Fairfax. But say what you want, that’s seven straight wins over Fairfax the last three years, and that’s pretty good.” What was different this time is that the Dolphins never trailed. In the teams’ first meeting at Pali on January 28, the Lions held an early eight-point lead before the Dolphins stormed back, 77-52. At Fairfax on February 8, Pali fell behind by 22 in the second quarter before rallying to net a 70-62 win. On Tuesday, the Dolphins had plenty of chances to pull away from Fairfax, but allowed the Lions to stay close with poor free-throw shooting. Pali led by as many as nine in the first half, but a tip-in by Fairfax at the halftime buzzer pulled it to within 27-21. Rehman, who along with Kurihara and senior forward Dakota Chambers led the team with 11 points, knocked down a three-pointer just nine seconds into the third quarter. Chambers dunked a minute later and Rehman added a free-throw that made it 33-21, but Pali’s lead would not get any bigger than that. Junior guard Aaron Johnson ended the third with a reverse layup that made it 43-35. In the fourth, Pali again got its lead back up to 12 at 47-35, but its inability to convert at the charity stripe invited Fairfax to hang around. A 6-0 Lions run made things a little dicey at 52-46 with just under a minute to play, but Chambers put an emphatic end to the drama with another dunk with :44 left. “We’re very capable of playing good defense,” Paleno said. “But it comes in spurts. And we’re pretty deep and physical. Our guys don’t mind knocking them around a little bit.” PaliHi played at Taft in a State playoff qualifying game on Tuesday night and the winner will advance to play the winner of Huntington Park and Carson on Thursday at 7 p.m. at Bernstein High School in Los Angeles.