Taft tops Westchester to advance to City boys’ basketball final

Taft High's Keyon Kensie Jr. dunks against Westchester
Taft High’s Keyon Kensie Jr. dunks in the final seconds against Westchester in a City Section Open Division semifinal playoff game Saturday night at Pasadena City College.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
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Since he was 7, Souljah Niles of Taft said he first heard the story of his father, Kenyatta, being a standout basketball player at Monroe High missing two free throws and a shot in the final seconds of the 1993 City Section 3-A championship game that resulted in a one-point loss to Banning.

Thirty years later, on Saturday night at Pasadena City College in the City Open Division semifinals, Niles came away the hero, contributing a basket, then a three-point play in the final two minutes to wipe out a one-point deficit and ignite the Toreadors to a 55-46 victory over Westchester.

“He told me how he went to the line and couldn’t knock down the free throws,” Niles said. “Everything I do is for mom and dad.”


Westchester (20-10) had taken a 45-44 lead with 1:57 left on two free throws from Andrew Martin. Taft (20-10) was searching for someone to step forward at the biggest moment of the game. Enter Niles, a junior who transferred from West Hills Chaminade. He scored on a layup with 1:39 left, then scored on a three-point play with 1:26 left. The Comets collapsed and were outscored 11-1 to end the game.

“I always embrace the moments,” Niles said. “My teammates gave me the ball. I got the buckets.”

Said Keyon Kensie Jr.: “He was great. He came with a lot of energy.”

Mariah Blake finishes with 16 points to help push Westchester to a 56-46 win over Crenshaw in the City Section Open Division girls’ basketball semifinals.

Feb. 18, 2023

Taft, seeking its fourth City title under coach Derrick Taylor, will face defending champion Fairfax next Saturday at 7 p.m. at PCC. Fairfax defeated Lake Balboa Birmingham 68-58.

Kensie and Bishop Brooks each scored 15 points for Taft and Niles had 13. Martin led Westchester with 10 points.

“It was an ugly, grind-it-out type of game,” Taylor said. “We got caught into it and we had to figure out how to play in a half-court game.”

First-year head coach Jamal Hartwell of Fairfax has been receiving a master course from the head coaches he worked for at Fairfax. First there was Harvey Kitani, then Steve Baik, followed by Reggie Morris Jr., who resigned after guiding the Lions to last season’s Open Division title.


Hartwell got the job in late July, leaving little opportunity for summer basketball. The Lions went 12-0 in the tough Western League and have gained momentum since transfer student Darius Carr became eligible at midseason.

Carr finished with 22 points, Donald Bluitt scored 20 and David Mack 17. Naseef Lubowa led Birmingham (20-9) with 16 points.

“A lot of people didn’t believe in us, so this feels good,’’ Hartwell said.

Now Hartwell, with 19 career victories, faces Taylor with 502 victories.

“I used to go to the Sports Arena for old Taft vs. Fairfax games back in the day,” Hartwell said. “He’s got 502, I got 19. It’s a mismatch.”

In Division II, South Gate received 19 points from Steve Calderilla in a 63-43 semifinal victory over Reseda Cleveland. The Rams will play Eagle Rock, a 68-58 winner over Granada Hills Kennedy.