First published in the Feb. 3 print issue of the San Marino Tribune.
In a lexicon that is loaded with memorable sayings, “defense wins championships” is one of the more enduring phrases to adorn the sports landscape.
San Marino High School boys’ varsity basketball coach Mihail Papadopulos hopes it adds up to a Rio Hondo League championship for his squad, whose chances of accomplishing the elusive goal improved greatly on Friday night when the Titans put forth a defensive effort for the ages to defeat perennial league powerhouse La Cañada, 48-37.
“Defense,” Papadopulos said on Monday when asked to reveal the magic potion that allowed San Marino to improve to 18-2 overall and 6-1 in the Rio Hondo League.
The hundreds who attended the game didn’t need him to say it twice, as their minds were made up when the final buzzer pierced the din inside San Marino’s Dingus Memorial Gymnasium and students attempted to rush the court. The Titans outhustled the nine-time defending league champion Spartans for 32 minutes, beating the visitors to almost every loose ball and getting a hand in the face of every shooter on the court.
In the end, La Cañada got trapped inside of San Marino’s tsunami of hustle that was at once caused by and spilled over into what was by far the largest crowd of the season. Athletic director David Irie deserved plaudits for putting a halt to the court-storming that began, but never advanced to fruition.
Who could blame the Titan faithful? Basketball victories over the Spartans seem to be as rare as comet appearances. Before Friday, the last time San Marino defeated La Cañada at Dingus Gymnasium was 32 years ago: a 57-51 Titan win on Feb. 8, 1990.
In a series thoroughly dominated by La Cañada during the past four decades, San Marino has notched several notable upsets, but all occurred in the Spartans’ home gym. The most recent took place on Feb. 5, 2013, when Jasper Hwang scored 22 points to lead the Titans to a 67-51 win on the Spartans’ home court. Another notable victory took place on Feb. 10, 2000, when the Titans shocked the host Spartans, 49-36, in the final game of the season. San Marino had entered that contest with an 0-9 mark in Rio Hondo League play and ended the season with an 8-16 overall record.
The Titans’ last Rio Hondo League championship was 1981, according to Irie, a drought of 41 years.
That’s another streak San Marino hopes to break, and they can do it as early as this weekend. League-leading South Pasadena visits Friday evening at 7 p.m. for the second of two meetings between the rival schools. La Cañada handed the Tigers their only league loss of the season last month but South Pas turned the tables and defeated the Spartans in their second meeting.
If the Titans can beat the Tigers Friday night, they will take sole possession of the league lead, at least temporarily. If the plot needs any thickening, look no farther than Saturday night, when San Marino travels to La Cañada for the final league contest of the season. Depending on Friday’s result, the Titans might have a chance to break a decades-old curse and win the season series against the Spartans.
Last Friday’s long-awaited Titan victory featured Aidan Huang leading San Marino in scoring with 12 points while Michael Azinge added 10. Jayden Tse nailed three 3-point shots to finish nine points while other offensive assistance came from Bobby Reyes (five points), Aidan Hoang (four), Kyle Yu and Mason Lo (three apiece) and Xavier Duong, who added two.
San Marino held a 29-20 lead against the Spartans at halftime and continued to dig in defensively over the final two quarters. Azinge converted on a huge second-chance basket in the fourth quarter and Reyes drained a three-point shot from the corner which brought the crowd to a fever pitch as the Titans prevailed.
“I really don’t have the words to explain what I saw out there,” Papadopulos said. “I just give credit to everyone on the team, the players on the court and those on the bench who stayed in the game every single second, from start to finish. This was a team effort in the truest sense of the word and it a testimony to the dedication that has been shown by this team from the beginning of the season.”
The California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section agrees, which on Monday elevated San Marino to the No. 1 spot in Division 4AA rankings.
“I can’t wait,” said Papadopulos, when asked about Friday’s rematch with South Pasadena. “We felt we did not play our best game against them the first time we played them [a 63-49 loss to the Tigers on Jan. 19]. We had over 20 fouls and 20 turnovers that night. I thought we just played a little too rushed but it is important to play those games so we can feel a little more settled when we play them again. I am excited. These are two good teams. We are excited to see them on senior night in San Marino, fighting for first place against our rival, at home. I don’t know what more you can ask for.”