PALM SPRINGS, Calif. —
Andrew Harrison picked the wrong guy to try to rattle. Nick Hamilton
is Westchester's (Los Angeles, Calif.)
rock, its foundation, its poster boy.
"He's just a warrior," Westchester coach Ed Azzam said.
So when Harrison, Fort Bend Travis' electrifying but hobbled twin standout, started messing with Hamilton's hair and ear to start the fourth quarter it all backfired.
The two were tangling for position on FBT's possession to start the fourth when, according to Hamilton, Harrison flicked his hair. Rather than retaliate, the 6-foot-3 Westchester junior backed up, alerted the referee and then went back to firm defensive position.
When Harrison thought the referee had looked away, he flicked or pulled on Hamilton's right ear with his left hand.
One referee did catch it, gave Harrison a technical, Tyler Batiste
sank two free throws, Westchester got the ball, tournament MVP Matthew Grant
was fouled and sank two free throws and the Comets were off to a 9-1 run to start the quarter en route to a 70-62 victory in the finals of the MaxPreps Holiday Classic Invitational Division.
"He tried to make me lose my composure, but instead they lost theirs," Hamilton said. "I don't know if that turned the game in our favor, but it didn't hurt."
And though Hamilton has, at this point, limited offensive skills, he never hurts the Comets when he's in the lineup.
In fact, he's the only underclassman on Westchester's starting five, which is of note.
Because his team is so balanced and, other than Grant, lacking a true go-to scoring threat, Azzam subs in five at a time. Hamilton, who along with Grant were the only two All-Tournament selection, scores most of his points off rebounds, loose ball and general hustle plays.
He's a throwback — and a 4.0 scholar — and that's why Azzam loves him. Not a big scorer, he did have four big buckets Saturday after a 15-point outburst in Friday's win over Harvard-Westlake.
"He brings out a spirit in us that's immeasurable," Azzam said. "And he does it every practice, every drill, every game. Everyone feeds off it and he doesn't even know it."
Grant, a super skilled and athletic 6-2 shooting guard, soaks up Hamilton at every opportunity.
"He's a great teammate," Grant said. "He's always upbeat, doing the right thing, getting us going. He doesn't make mistakes."
The Comets (12-4) have made plenty in the early going. At least by Westchester standards. The Comets have won six state, 11 Los Angeles City and 18 league titles.
Westchester has stopped and started several times this season to find its identity and played well in the Pacific Shores and own Westchester Tip-Off Classic.
But in each tournament, the Comets lost in the finals to nationally ranked Long Beach Poly (60-55) and undefeated Bishop Montgomery (70-63). No shame there. Unless you're Westchester.
"That's why it was so important to finish this tournament with a championship," Hamilton said. "Our motto was and is ‘win the last game.' "
Westchester won back-to-back state titles in 2009 and 2010, but the last two seasons have lost eight games. Hamilton said that's unacceptable.
"Our reputation has gone down the last couple years so we're trying to get it back," he said. "We're going to fight to get it back."
These Comets fight hard, but they stay composed. At least they did through four games at this tournament.
Azzam obviously instills discipline — "Our kids are still going to do stupid things because they're kids, but there will always be a consequence," he said — but Hamilton came into the program with a firm pedigree.
The youngest of five boys, all of his brothers were athletic and at least two were scholars. Robert Hamilton, a Westchester graduate, played football at Oregon.
"My dad (Mark) just instilled in all of us to do our very best whether it's sports or school," Nick said. "For me on the court, I don't talk mess. I just get rebounds."
Hamilton had a nasty gash above his left eye endured during a rough exchange under the basket in the fourth quarter. No foul was call, but Hamilton never lost his cool.
He didn't back down either.
He was often matched up with Andrew Harrison, who has been limited most of the season with a hamstring pull. It
wasn't by design, Azzam said.
"Our guys are pretty good defenders, so we switch everything out," Azzam said. "Just happened to be Nick was on (Andrew Harrison) a lot."
Andrew Harrison fouled out with just less than four minutes remaining. Hamilton took no satisfaction in that, just the win.
"Good teams find a way to win," Hamilton said. "I think we're becoming a pretty good team."