It was vintage City Section basketball Wednesday night at Fairfax High. The music was so loud you couldn't hear the person sitting next to you talking. Students were dancing in the bleachers. At one point, players were so fired up there were back-to-back missed dunks by each team, raising the noise level in the sold-out gym to a deafening roar.
Above all, there was the play of Fairfax senior guard Jamal Hartwell. He finished with 31 points, 22 coming in the second half when he made eight of 12 shots and four of five from three-point range to help the Lions knock off rival Westchester 68-51.
Fairfax (17-7, 8-1) moved into a first-place tie with the Comets (22-5, 8-1) in the Western League and left the experts confused as to whether the Lions or the Comets deserve to be the No. 1 seed in City Section Open Division playoffs.
"We finally put together a full game," Fairfax coach Steve Baik said.
This was a breakthrough moment for the Lions. They've been competing against top opponents and coming close, but Wednesday's performance showed what is possible when the Lions' two All-City guards, Hartwell and Ethan Anderson, are at their best. Anderson scored 11 of his 13 points in the second half, when the Lions outscored Westchester 46-27.
"We played to our full potential," Hartwell said. "It seemed like it all came together."
In losing to Westchester by nine points on Jan. 12, Fairfax was unable to prevent the Comets from dumping the ball inside to their big men. This time, the Lions went from a 2-3 zone defense to a 1-2-2 zone. Westchester struggled with turnovers and missed outside shots. About the only effective offensive weapon was Jordan Brinson, who scored 18 points.
"We didn't shoot well," Westchester coach Ed Azzam said. "We tried to get cute instead of attack their zone."
Critical to the Lions' win was the play of center Kirk Smith. He stayed out of foul trouble and was aggressive rebounding and trying to block shots. The Lions didn't have starter Robert McRae, who was recovering from a sprained ankle.
"Our guys did a heck of a job," Baik said. "They're so sick and tired of losing close games."
Hartwell scored 10 consecutive points between the end of the third quarter and the start of the fourth when Fairfax broke away.
With one week left in the regular season, there's a lot more parity than expected in Southern California basketball. It has a lot to do with three top players leaving the scene. Imagine what the season might have been if Marvin Bagley III, LaMelo Ball and Bol Bol were playing for Chatsworth Sierra Canyon, Chino Hills and Santa Ana Mater Dei. They left before the season for Duke, Lithuania and Nevada Findlay Prep. Their former teams are still good but very much beatable without them.
Torrance Bishop Montgomery, at 23-0, is the clear No. 1 team, but Westchester has given the Knights their two toughest games, losing by one and three points. Etiwanda is 24-1.
And now Fairfax showed it can join the mix with the Comets. Baik, who was the coach when Chino Hills went 35-0 with the Ball brothers, is a little nervous these days. He's keeping close track of his phone. His wife is supposed to deliver their third child.
"Any day now," he said.