CORONA DEL MAR — One of the first things an opponent notices when it walks into the Corona del Mar High gym is the dozens of CIF Southern Section championship banners on the walls. Five belong to the boys' basketball team at the school.
The Sea Kings tried to earn the right to play for another on Friday. Their opponent was La Verne Damien and its players looked up and saw all the banners.
Never had Damien played for a section title in its history.
Damien will now.
A sophomore point guard named Jeremy Hemsley led second-seeded Damien to a 61-53 win in a Division 3AA semifinal road game against third-seeded CdM. He ended the game the same way he started it, strong.
In front of a packed gym, Hemsley put the finishing touches on a historic night for the Spartans with an emphatic dunk before time ran out. He gave himself a game-high 25 points and his school its first section title berth.
Finally, the Spartans (24-6) broke through. This was their fourth semifinal appearance in five seasons and they will get to return to Orange County next week to play for a section championship against Santa Margarita.
"It feels amazing," Hemsley said with a huge smile.
Hemsley helped Damien stave off a valiant comeback attempt by CdM by scoring 11 points in the fourth quarter. It got dicey late for the visitors, who saw their double-digit lead cut to six, five, four and then three.
Each time, Hemsley seemed to make the right play, finding the open teammate as he finished with eight assists. He also scored five of his team's final six points to seal the deal for Damien.
"He was better than we thought [he was], and we thought he was pretty good," said CdM Coach Ryan Schachter of Hemsley, who went into the game averaging around 18 points and five assists per game. "He's something for being a sophomore. Man, I'm having nightmares right now thinking about all the passes he made.
"They were unbelievable passes. Those are passes no one in high school makes. He was trapped in the right corner, threw a cross-court dime in the left corner, right for the guy to catch and shoot. Guys make plays like that, you're not going to beat them."
Hemsley found Jared Dizon open a handful of times. And Dizon didn't disappoint, knocking down four of six three-pointers, including two in the fourth quarter.
Dizon twice gave Damien 12-point leads in the final quarter and finished with 15 points. Then with 3:17 left to play, Blake Grable rallied the Sea Kings (21-10). The senior recorded one of his three-point plays in the fourth.
He almost had a fourth. His last three-point shot looked good, before it went in-and-out, and there went CdM's season. It was over.
"I thought it went in and then I saw it rattle around, and I still thought it was going to go down," said Grable, who led the Sea Kings with 23 points.
If the three had gone in, CdM trails, 58-56, with about 11 seconds left. But it didn't drop and Grable's 10-point fourth-quarter performance wasn't enough to keep CdM's season alive.
The all-around effort turned in by Grable was his best.
"He carried us defensively, offensively, rebounding," Schachter said of Grable, who added 10 rebounds and three steals. "He tried to will us to victory. He couldn't do it by himself."
Grable was CdM's lone scorer in double figures. The team's usual leading scorer, Max Stone, was unable to get going. He finished with five points, four coming in the fourth quarter.
The Spartans did a great job of not allowing Stone open looks behind the arc, his favorite spot. It frustrated Stone, and after getting called for an offensive foul with 64 seconds left, he barked at one of the referees. The ref gave Stone a technical foul and Stone fouled out.
The Spartans didn't take advantage. They were unable to extend a 55-48 lead, missing two free throws, then another two in separate one-and-one situations.
Hemsley missed three of those tries from the charity stripe, but he came through late. With 30 seconds left, he converted his last three free-throw attempts, putting Damien up by five points.
His dunk, coming on a steal at the end, was the exclamation point.
"I thought it was a great year," said Schachter, whose team advanced to the semifinals for the first time since the 2006-07 season, when CdM went on to claim a section crown. "I was definitely at peace coming into the game. I wasn't nervous. I knew we had a great year and I knew the boys were going to compete."
CIF Southern Section Playoffs
Damien 61, Corona del Mar 53
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Damien 22 – 10 – 9 – 20 — 61
CdM 16 – 5 – 11 – 21 — 53
D – Hemsley 25, Dizon 15, Cavanaugh 8, McCullough 8, Adedeji 3, Alfaro 2.
3-pt. goals – Dizon 4, Cavanaugh 2, Adedeji 1.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.
CdM – Grable 23, St. Geme 9, Flamson 7, Stone 5, Olson 4, Fults 3, Griffin 2.
3-pt. goals – Grable 3, St. Geme 1, Stone 1, Fults 1.
Fouled out – Stone.
Technicals – Stone.