That was how the 2022-2023 Port Of Los Angeles High boys basketball team turned their program around.
After losing all but one of their 14 games the previous year, which was the first after not playing a shortened 2021 season due to the coronavirus pandemic, these young but dangerous Polar Bears squad did an about face, and adopted a relentless, fast-paced style that worked out well for them. So well in fact, they made some big-time history on Thursday at Los Angeles Harbor College.
POLA shook off a slow first quarter start against New Designs Watts of Los Angeles, pulled away in the second quarter, then dominated the second half all the way to a 67-39 victory over the Knights in the CIF-Los Angeles City Section Division 5 championship game, giving the Polar Bears their first basketball title, and the tenth sports crown in school history.
It took a balanced effort for head coach G. Aaron Givens and company to turn back the challenge of the upset-minded, No.14-seeded Knights (10-7 overall), who built up quite the resume in knocking out the third-seed (Math & Science College Preparatory School) in the second round, and the second-seed (University Pathways Public Service Academy) in the semifinals just to make it to the title game itself in attempt to then eliminate the top-seeded Polar Bears (12-9).
Trailing 11-9 at the end of the first quarter, POLA's full court pressure defense began to wreck things up for New Designs Watts, as a 14-4 run spearheaded by five points apiece from junior guard Russell Carrera and sophomore guard/forward Nasir Patrick, propelled the Polar Bears to a 23-15 advantage at halftime.
Once the third quarter begun, the lead grew significantly when POLA's leading scorer, sophomore shooting guard Hudson Smith, finally erupted after being held scoreless in the first two quarters. It also helped when Carrera also got hot as he drilled a pair of three-pointers and scored 8 points in the quarter. Smith also buried a trifecta and scored his first six points of the contest.
Junior point guard Gared Almazan scored four of his 10 points in the period, which saw POLA leading 45-27 at the end of it.
The fourth quarter proved to be a mere formality as POLA once again outscored New Designs Watts 22-12 in the final frame (identical to the third quarter) to put the historic first hoops CIF championship at the San Pedro-based Charter high school on lockdown. Senior forward Manuel Chavez scored all six of his points in the quarter, while Smith scored eight more to finish with a team-high 14 points. Sophomore guard Ian Murakami hit the Polar Bears' last of six three-pointers on the night for the exclamation point.
Defensively, POLA forced 22 turnovers, while New Designs Watts imploded in the fourth quarter with three technical fouls.
Patrick was solid on both ends of the court for the Polar Bears, finishing with 12 points. Carreras finished with 13 points, and senior guard/forward Daniel Cervantes finished with 8 points as well. Sophomore Martavius Watson led New Designs Watts with 11 points, and senior Abraham Barcelo ended up with 8 points for the Knights.
This championship for POLA boys basketball makes them just the second male related sports champion in the history of the school, joining the 2014 CIF-LACS Division 3 champion baseball team. This is also the second straight sports championship for POLA that came one year after missing the playoffs, just like the previous champion, the 2019 CIF-LACS Division 4 champion girls volleyball team.
These Polar Bears won all four CIF-LACS Division 5 playoff games by at least eleven points as it defeated Alliance Marine-Innovation & Technology of Sun Valley (92-65), North Valley Military Institute of Sun Valley (74-44) and fifth-seeded Triumph Charter of Sylmar (56-45) before seizing the championship.
POLA will now await playoff pairings again, this time for the CIF Southern California Regional playoffs, which will all be announced on Sunday.