It had already been one of the best ever weeks for Valley teams playing Los Angeles City Section boys’ and girls’ basketball. The Valor Academy girls won the Division V championship on Feb. 28. The Chavez Learning Academy boys won the Division IV championship on March 1, giving a badly needed lift to a community reeling from the loss of a 14-year-old teen who had drowned in the Los Angeles River filled by driving rainstorms. The Van Nuys High boys won the Division III championship on March 2. And the Cleveland High girls won the Division II championship on March 3.
But most eyes were on Birmingham Community Charter High, trying to win the City boys’ Open Division, which pits the top eight teams against each other in an elimination tournament. It’s not the last basketball played this season; the state playoffs await. But it’s still a meaningful tournament for City teams because the state playoffs can be such a crapshoot.
Birmingham had never won a boys basketball championship of any kind, but all the signs pointed to this being their year. The Patriots only had three loses in their 29 previous games, the last one being to Mater Dei High of Santa Ana on Dec. 27. That was 17 games ago, entering the championship final on Saturday, March 4, against Westchester of Los Angeles — a team Birmingham beat back in a Thanksgiving holiday tournament.
Westchester has the kind of championship resume Birmingham craves. The Comets have won 13 City boys’ championships under legendary Coach Ed Azzam, the first in 1991 and the 13th coming last year. They had also been the runner-up seven times. Every year, it seems, they are part of the championship conversation.
But — again, as Coach Nicholas Halic has been saying this season — this was Birmingham’s turn. The Patriots were not going be labeled as one of the great teams not to win a City title. And vanquished any doubts of their 2016-17 pedigree — including any they still privately harbored — with an 85-80 victory over Westchester before a full gymnasium at Cal State Dominguez Hills.
The level of satisfaction for Birmingham (27-3) afterward was immense.
“It’s great for the school. It’s great for those who played for those who played before these guys,” Halic said. “They knew what was at stake, putting a banner in the gym for the first time. And they answered the bell.”
Halic was asked how many scenarios of Birmingham winning ran through his mind this year, Halic replied, “I can’t really count. Earlier in the year, not that many. But as it gets closer, you can’t help but let it sneak into your mind. I tried to keep it out of their minds.”
The players also had no problem expressing their joy.
“It means everything,” said forward Mark Boland, a senior. “I’ve been in the program four years, and this moment is just great. To be able to go into that gym and point at that banner, then look at my ring finger and know I’ll see a ring….”
“It’s crazy. It’s like my favorite dream,” added senior guard Deschon Winston.
Birmingham did trail after the first quarter, 20-13, and was still down 34-28 with about three-and-a-half minutes left in the second quarter. The Patriots, then went on one of the great runs in City championship basketball history, scoring 18 consecutive points to lead 40-34 at halftime.
They were still sizzling in the third quarter, stretching the run to 22 consecutive points before Westchester finally scored and Birmingham eventually grew its lead to 57-37, a stunning deficit for a Comets team in a championship setting.
Of course Westchester (24-9) was not going to stop playing. They had Birmingham’s lead down to 63-50 by the end of the third quarter, and under 10 points — 64-57 — two minutes later. Then came what appeared to be a disastrous turn of events. Devante Doutrive, the team’s best rebounder, leading scorer and emotional leader, fouled out.
Westchester might have expected Birmingham to implode.
Not this group.
“[Westchester] thought the game was over when Devante fouled out,” Hurlic said “But these guys have been through that before. He’s fouled out a couple of times, and they stepped up.”
“When Devante fouled out, we had to adjust as fast as we could because we knew they would make a push,” Winston said. “That’s when we really had to stay together as a team, and play solid defense because we didn’t have our biggest rebounder. That’s what we did.”
Yes, they did.
The Comets, who got 16 points each from forward Harold Moore and guard Chris Simmons, would get as close as 83-80 with 26 seconds left in the game and they had the ball. But they missed the shot, the Patriots got a rebound, and Winston had a breakaway dunk with 13 seconds remaining that gave Birmingham all the space it needed.
“It put an exclamation point on what we’ve done all year,” Winston said.
Davante, who had a game-high 26 points (his younger brother Devonaire Doutrive added 24) was still buzzing with excitement after the game.
“It’s crazy,” he said, while being surrounded again and again by fans. “We knew we were going to make it to the championship game, after we struggled and lost in the first round last year. We knew we had to come harder and stronger this time. This game we really played defense, and did whatever it took to win.”