By Richard Hernandez, Correspondent
COVINA – Damien survived a determined Rowland boys basketball team Saturday night in a 59-57 victory in the championship game of the 59th annual Covina Christmas Tournament.
Rowland guard Joseph Dionisio’s last-second layup attempt in traffic missed the rim, securing the victory for the defending champion Spartans.
This year was more of a series of battles and less of a coronation with Damien winning its last three games by a combined 10 points.
Damien (11-4) did not trail Saturday, but it never felt comfortable as the Raiders squandered chances to take the lead.
“They (Rowland) are great competitors and really well-coached,” Damien coach Matt Dunn said. “I watched them all tournament and I thought they were the best team throughout all four days.
“We just found a way to score one more basket tonight.”
Chris Arzadon made a layup and was fouled with 4:08 remaining in the game, and his free throw pulled Rowland even for the first time since the opening moments.
Jeremy Hemsley broke the tie with a short jumper in the lane to give Damien a 51-49 lead.
Hemsley scored seven of his game-high 19 points in the fourth quarter and the sophomore went on to be named MVP of the tournament.
Following two free throws by Dionisio, Damien senior forward Ayo Adedeji converted consecutive layups to extend the lead to four with just over a minute remaining.
Adedeji, Isaiah McCullough, and Jared Dizon were named to the all-tournament team.
“He (Adedeji) has come a long way in his four-year career with us,” Dunn said. “He’s a kid going to Stanford as a student, so we are very proud of him.”
Hemsley made one of two free throws with 14 seconds left in the fourth to put the Spartans ahead 57-55 and set up the failed final attempt by the Raiders that would have sent the game into overtime.
Seniors Dionisio, Arzadon, and Saeed Montoya scored 47 of Rowland’s 57 points. All of their points were scored from the second quarter on.
Rowland entered having outscored its tournament opponents by an average of 29 points.
Damien jumped out to a fast start. Adedeji followed up a 3-pointer with a blocked shot on Rowland’s next possession that led to a layup by McCullough, who also was fouled. McCullough’s free throw capped an 8-0 Spartans run and gave them their largest first-half lead, 20-11.
Following a 3-pointer by Damien’s Keith Cavanaugh to open the second half, Rowland answered with seven consecutive points to close the gap to 33-32. But consecutive layups by Hemsley denied the Raiders the opportunity to take their first lead.