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Despite Lack of Height, Westchester Is Standing Tall : Prep basketball: Comets do not have a starter over 6-foot-3, but are off to a 9-3 start. Westchester went 5-0 and won title at Las Vegas tournament last week.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Christmas came early last week for the Westchester High boys’ basketball team, which outplayed several nationally ranked teams to win the championship of the Las Vegas Holiday Classic.

Even Coach Ed Azzam was surprised by the Comets’ showing in the prestigious tournament.

“I didn’t think we could win this tournament,” Azzam said. “There were too many quality teams. I thought we’d have trouble matching up, but things just fell into place.”

With no starter taller than 6-foot-3, Westchester (9-3) won five games at Las Vegas, including an 83-81 double-overtime victory over East Anchorage of Alaska in Thursday’s final. East Anchorage is led by Duke-bound guard Trajan Langdon, who was named most valuable player.

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Westchester hopes to add another tournament title to its trophy case when it begins play Monday in the Artesia Holiday Classic. The 16-team field also includes Inglewood, Serra, Gardena, Morningside and Torrance.

The Comets are seeded second behind Compton Dominguez, the team Westchester defeated Wednesday in the most dramatic comeback of the Las Vegas tournament. Trailing, 57-42, with less than five minutes remaining, Westchester ended the game with a 21-2 run to pull out a 63-59 victory.

“They had us beat,” Azzam said. “I think everybody decided that the game was over, including (Dominguez’s) players. But a few of ours didn’t.”

Westchester’s comeback came a day after Dominguez had upset Oak Hill Academy of Virginia, which entered the tournament ranked No. 1 in the nation by USA Today.

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Azzam said Dominguez probably suffered an emotional letdown after beating Oak Hill Academy, but he praised his players for overcoming injury and illness to win the title.

Azzam said he wasn’t sure whether Westchester should go to the gym or the hospital before the championship game against East Anchorage. Sophomore guard Danny Walker had suffered bruised ribs in the Comets’ 84-69 semifinal victory over Fremont, and junior point guard Ben Sanders was sick and had a sprained ankle.

But Walker managed to play, finishing with a team-high 20 points, and Sanders came off the bench late in the fourth quarter and played in both overtimes, making the game-winning free throws in the final minute of the second overtime. Sanders’ late appearance helped make up for the loss of senior swingman Cullen Countee, who did not return after suffering a knee injury in the final seconds of regulation.

“It really shocked me that we won because we were ready to go home,” Azzam said. “I thought we might as well go to a hospital, but we really played well, especially down the stretch.”

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Sanders and Countee were named to the all-tournament team, but Azzam felt Las Vegas officials were wrong in snubbing Walker, who was named player of the game twice, including the final.

“We thought Danny was going to be named co-MVP with Langdon,” Azzam said. “Then when he wasn’t, we were shocked. I felt bad for him.”

Because of its lack of height, Westchester relies on the perimeter games of Walker, Sanders and Countee, perhaps as good a set of guards in the area.

“When they’re all on, there aren’t many teams that are going to beat us,” Azzam said. “All three are outstanding. The only thing we lack is size, and in high school I think that’s a little overrated. It’s nice to have a 6-9 athlete running around out there instead of a 6-2 athlete, but we’re doing all right.”

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Westchester’s losses are to Fremont in the season opener and to Mater Dei and Los Alamitos in the Ocean View Tournament of Champions. The Comets squandered a 12-point halftime lead and lost on a last-second shot against Fremont, but avenged the defeat with a convincing victory Wednesday.

Westchester handed Inglewood (9-1), the winner of two tournaments, its only loss in a nonleague game in the Sentinels’ gym.

“We have a good team and quality players,” Azzam said. “When we play hard, we’re really good.”

Good enough to beat Crenshaw? The Cougars appear stronger than their State Division I championship team last season and won the Ft. Myers-City of Palms tournament in Florida on Thursday, giving the City Section two champions of prestigious national tournments this week.

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Azzam knows it will be tough to unseat Crenshaw as City 4-A Division champion, but he gives the Comets an outside chance.

“Anything is possible,” he said. “Everyone can be beaten, everyone can lose. But it’s going to take a very special weapon. We have four or five guys who can shoot the three.”

Because of injuries, Azzam was unsure how many of his players would be ready to play when Westchester opens the Artesia tournament at 5:15 p.m. Monday against Cerritos Valley Christian.

“I told the players (Friday) I’d see them a couple of hours before the game on Monday,” he said. “Then I’ll see who can play and who can’t. We’ll just try to get through it.”

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Redondo will play host to its own tournament, the first Sea Hawk Classic, starting Monday.

The Sea Hawks (9-2) top the eight-team field, which includes Leuzinger, Hawthorne, Narbonne, North Torrance and San Pedro.

Redondo has been impressive thus far, its only losses coming to Inglewood in the final of the Pacific Shores tournament and to Newhall Hart in the semifinals of the Beverly Hills tournament.

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In their last game, a 94-59 blowout over North on Wednesday, six Sea Hawks scored in double figures, led by 6-6 center Brian Hattingh with 19 points and 14 rebounds.

SEA HAWK CLASSIC

At Redondo High

First-round games

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UPPER BRACKET (Monday)--Narbonne vs. Bellflower, 6 p.m.; Leuzinger vs. Hawthorne, 7:30 p.m.

LOWER BRACKET (Tuesday)--North Torrance vs. San Pedro, 6 p.m.; La Puente vs. Redondo, 7:30 p.m.

Semifinals are Wednesday at 6 and 7:30 p.m.

Championship game is Thursday at 7:30 p.m.

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ARTESIA HOLIDAY CLASSIC

At Artesia High

Monday’s first-round games

UPPER BRACKET--Dominguez vs. Santa Fe, 12:25 p.m.; Agoura vs. Gardena, 10:50 a.m.; Verbum Dei vs. Bellarmine Prep, 2:05 p.m.; Paramount vs. Inglewood, 9:15 a.m.

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LOWER BRACKET--Serra vs. Whitney, 8:25 p.m.; Los Angeles vs. Morningside, 3:40 p.m.; Artesia vs. Torrance, 6:50 p.m.; Valley Christian vs. Westchester, 5:15 p.m.

Quarterfinals are Tuesday at 3:40, 5:15, 6:50 and 8:25 p.m.

Semifinals are Wednesday at 6:50 and 8:25 p.m.

Championship game is Thursday at 8:30 p.m.

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