Chino Hills center Onyeka Okongwu stepped to the free throw line, a tie game on the scoreboard with 5.6 seconds left, with a calm over him as if he were in the gym all by himself.
The 6-foot-10 senior, bound for USC in the fall, didn’t hear the Etiwanda cheerleaders slamming their bullhorns on the floor or the screams from the Eagles faithful, packed to the rafters of their home gym.
Instead, Okongwu did what he has done for the Huskies over the last four seasons: He led them to victory.
Okongwu coolly drained both free throws. Etiwanda guard Camren Pierce then raced to the other side of the floor, the time ticking away on the Eagles’ chance to reach their first California Interscholastic Federation state title game in school history.
Pierce probed the lane, jump-stopped and hit a trailing Darvelle Wyatt for a wide-open three-point attempt from the top of the key, but the shot glanced off the rim. Chino Hills players rushed the floor to celebrate a 49-47 victory and the Southern California Regional Division I championship.
The Huskies will make the trip to Sacramento for the fourth time in five years and play James Logan of Union City for the Division I state title Friday.
“I had a sense of urgency to win this game, but I also had to keep my composure,” Okongwu said. “I just have a lot of confidence in myself.”
That sense of urgency showed when Chino Hills fell behind Etiwanda by 12 points, at 44-32, midway through the fourth quarter as the Eagles ramped up the defensive pressure for which they are known.
The Huskies responded with two consecutive baskets from Okongwu, a mid-range jumper and a three-pointer from Nick Manor-Hall, then two free throws from the steady big man and two free throws from former Etiwanda guard Anthony Bell, who played junior varsity last season before transferring to Chino Hills.
Okongwu then tied the score at 47 with two more from the charity stripe with 1:15 remaining before putting his team ahead just one minute later.
“This wasn’t really about the X’s and O’s,” Chino Hills coach Dennis Latimore said. “It was more about being able to manage our composure. They pressured us in the third and we made some mistakes, but then the big fella took over.”
Chino Hills (22-10) closed the game with a 13-0 run over the final 4:05, Okongwu hit all six of his free throws in the final stanza, and the Huskies are again bound for Golden 1 Center hoping to bring home another ring.