Video: Onyeka Okongwu highlights
Chino Hills junior is averaging better than 28 points and 12 rebounds per game.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. —
The rhetoric ran so thick, Dennis Latimore needed a jackhammer to break through.
The Chino Hills (Calif.)
first-year boys basketball coach decided not to listen or wear a hard hat.
"I've never been a guy too concerned with media attention or background noise," he said.
Instead, he let his Huskies respond in the most emphatic terms possible — a CIF Southern California championship.
Actually, Chino Hills — the most talked about and watched high school basketball program on the planet the previous three seasons — needs one more win to get the very last word.
The Huskies play Las Lomas (Walnut Creek) in the CIF State Division 1 title game at beautiful Golden 1 Arena at 8 p.m. Friday.
"Everybody doubted us with LaMelo leaving," senior guard Ofure Ujadughele
told the Los Angeles Times
after the team's 67-51 Southern California regional title win over St. John Bosco (Bellflower) on Saturday. "No one believed in us. We proved them wrong."
LaMelo, of course, is LaMelo Ball, the youngest of three brothers, who all starred on the 2015-16 Chino Hills team that went 35-0 and not only won the state Open Division title, but the national crown as well.
The trio along with their dad LaVar and mom Tina are stars of the reality TV's "Ball in the Family."
The family has made plenty of front-page news on and off the court, but none more so than when LaMelo, a top 2020 recruit who scored 92 points in a game last season, was removed from the school by LaVar to be home-schooled. He was ultimately whisked off to Lithuania to pursue a professional basketball career.
LaVar largely blamed Latimore, an on-campus math teacher who took over the program in May, for the decision.
A Kansas native and former player at Arizona — he was on the team with Luke Walton and Channing Frey — Latimore also played at Notre Dame and professionally overseas before landing in Southern California as a coach at View Park (Los Angeles).
Latimore said he watched 10 Chino Hills games in person last season, when the Huskies went 30-3, lost in the Southern California Open semifinals and averaged 102.2 points per game. Then-senior LiAngelo Ball averaged 33.8 points and LaMelo 26.7 per game.
"There were some things I liked and some things I didn't like," Latimore said about the team. "They were definitely entertaining."
Latimore made it known during the spring and summer that the 2017-18 Huskies would be more focused on fundamentals and shot selection, which was enough evidently to cause LaVar to move LaMelo out of school and eventually out of the country.
In an October interview with ESPN, LaVar made it quite clear who was the scapegoat.
"I'm not dealing with the coach (Latimore)," he said. "All you got to do is get along with me and guess what — you go 35-0. When you try to do it your way? Goodbye.
"I told him we lost three games in three years (actually three games in two seasons with LaMelo). What are you bringing to the table?
"If you listen and get along with me your going to be undefeated. But once you want to do it your way and have your name it, ‘like it's me who did it,' you're going to fall down."
Latimore told MaxPreps this week he only had a "few conversions" with LaVar. Asked if thought he was responsible for LaMelo leaving, Latimore said: "Not at all. Every parent has the right to make their own decision on what they want to with their child. My job was to instruct basketball and have equality on the team.
"Honestly, I would have loved the opportunity to coach the kid (LaMelo). Being an African American male, I think I could have made some positive impacts on his life, on and off the court. That didn't happen, so I wish him continued luck."Into the fire
When LaVar's criticism went viral, Latimore responded to none of it, instead taking the high road. He focused on a team that still had some superb pieces, starting with 6-foot-9, 243-pound junior post Onyeka Okongwu
, who started as a freshman on the 2015-16 national championship team.
Latimore considered changing the team's rigorous schedule set up the previous season — including stops at the Tarkanian Classic (Las Vegas), Spalding Hoophall Classic (Springfield, Mass.) and a one game stop at the Nike Extravaganza against 11-time state champion Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.). But Okongwu convinced the new coach to keep it.
"He said we need to play the best," Latimore said. "And it made me think, do I want to shy away from the competition or build confidence? Ultimately, I thought we would be better to throw them into the fire."
As far as all the media attention with LaMelo's departure, Latimore said: "It was way more important to people from the outside. Teenagers just want to compete and be athletes. The players really focused from the start. They were ready to unite and always play with a chip on their shoulder because everyone doubted them."
Most of the team had never seen game action, Latimore said. Besides shot selection, "we worked a lot on basic fundamental stuff like jump stops. A lot of that was missing from previous years."
It seemed like old-school stuff, and a lot of it was, because Latimore brought back former Chino Hills coach Don Grant, who went 100-23 over his last four seasons as coach from 2006 to 2010, and Mel Sims, a former successful girls coach at Ayalya (Chino Hills). Sims went 104-28 in his final four seasons there, also 2006-10.
"Their influence has been great on the boys and maybe even more on me," Latimore said. "The amount of experience and schemes and strategy has been enormous." Imposing their will
Ultimately, it has come down to the players, Latimore said, and three in particularly have stood out.
• Okongwu, ranked the 17th best junior in the country by 247Sports, is averaging 28 points, 12 rebounds and 3.7 blocks per game. Latimore couldn't stop raving about him, right down to his 80 percent free-throw shooting.
"Where do you start?" he said. "His character, his great footwork, tremendous leaping ability, strength, quickness, soft touch. The best part about Onyeka is his positive mindset. There's no ego. He's super positive. How he treats everyone is so refreshing. You wouldn't guess he's one of the top 15 players in the country."
• Ujadughele. The 6-3 senior took over the point guard spot 10 games ago after starter Phaquon Davis
went down with season-ending knee energy. "He was already a great shooter and defender and then we asked him to take over the point. He can guard anyone. He has an incredible work ethic and is a high energy guy. He's probably been our MVP over the last 10 games."
* Andre Ball
. Yes, there is one more Ball, the cousin of Lonzo, LiAngelo and LaMelo. The 6-5 forward was hurt much of his career, but his senior year has been outstanding. He averaged 14 points during the regular season, and closer to 20 in the playoffs. "His overall game has improved dramatically," Latimore said. "He's a tremendous leaper with excellent speed and very long arms. He can create his own shot and is a very strong passer." He was offered a scholarship by Long Beach State following Saturday's win.
The trio were at their best during that victory. Ball went for 32 points, Ujadughele 20 and Okongwu 12 points, 17 rebounds and five blocks.
What truly set the performance apart was how they finished, on a head-spinning 27-2 fourth-quarter run. The Huskies entered the period down, 49-40, scored the first 18 points and sprinted to their 10th straight victory.
"It was really hard to put into words," Latimore said of the fourth-quarter onslaught. "With their backs against the wall, they just imposed their will against a really, really good team."
After the game, Latimore chose not to needle LaVar Ball or make any of it about himself. When asked this week if there was any greater message to be learned from the championship, Latimore thought for a moment.
"I think one of my main missions when I took the job was to simply bring attention to the kids," he said. "Kids play the game. They determine the outcome. It's all about them. They deserve the credit."