Freshmen spark Spartans, close in on league title

Jeremy Hemsley and Isaiah McCullough are technically in their first year of high school, but it’s about that time of the basketball season when they’re no longer considered freshman.

With Damien High School center Chris Reyes commanding much of the attention, the youthful duo controlled significant portions of the Spartans’ 48-38 win over Chino Hills Friday night. Hemsley scored a game-high 11 points and McCullough chipped in seven points while helping the 6-foot-7 Reyes control the paint for the top-ranked team in CIF-SS Division 3AAA.

With two games remaining in the regular season, Damien (22-2, 8-0) assured itself at least a share of the Sierra League championship while ending the title hopes of Chino Hills (15-9, 5-3), the No. 5 team in Division 1A.

The Huskies, who gave up 24 points to the St. Mary’s-bound Reyes in a 63-55 loss Jan. 20, regularly sent double-teams at him in limiting his production to 10 points, eight rebounds and five blocks. The 6-1 Hemsley in particular took advantage of the attention commanded by his talented teammate.

“If (Reyes) is single-covered, he’s going to score at an incredible rate,” Chino Hills coach Steve Baik said. “There’s always going to be a mismatch somewhere on the court when you’re dealing with a player like Reyes. But I don’t want to take anything away from Hemsley because he’s a great player off the dribble.”

Chino Hills took its only lead of the game early in the second quarter, but Hemsley led the resurgence by driving the lane to score Damien’s next eight points. A put-back with two seconds remaining in the first half by Jon Prater, who had seven points, gave the Spartans a 25-21 lead.

It was McCullough’s turn in the third quarter when the freshman led the decisive 13-4 run with five points, including a reverse lay-up to begin the charge and a put-back that gave Damien a 40-30 lead with 5:19 left in the game.

“They’re both good players but I think what I’m most proud of is that the freshmen continue to get better and now they’re more comfortable now with what we’re doing,” Damien coach Matt Dunn said. “I think they had the best matchups tonight for us.”

Michael Navar, who was assigned the duty of defending Reyes, led Chino Hills with 10 points. His pair of free throws to begin the second-half scoring pulled the Huskies within two but that’s as close as they would get. Damien held Chino Hills to six points in the third quarter, including just one field goal on a pretty spin move to the basket by Deion Page for two of his eight points.

Chino Hills has now lost three of its last four games, including two league losses to the two teams ahead of it in the standings. In order to fall into a tie for the league title with second-place Ayala, Damien would have to drop its Tuesday game to last-place West Covina Charter Oak the regular season finale to Ayala.

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