For most of the battle between two top high school basketball guns in the state, Fairfax High School looked like it had the edge over the Westchester High School Comets on the Westchester home court.
But then Westchester senior center Amir Johnson decided to play for real.
Johnson, who is headed to the University of Louisville in the fall, proved he is ready for the next level after he finished with a team-high 26 points and 14 rebounds, and helped the Comets break through a 52-44 deficit in the fourth quarter.
Westchester ended up with a 68-60 Western League victory.
The showdown between league rivals Westchester and Fairfax was widely anticipated among state basketball fans.
The Comets (10-2, 4-0), are ranked number one in the Southland by the Los Angeles Times and Fairfax (14-3, 3-1) is the number-three team and defending Division 1 state champion.
The two teams are familiar foes, but last year Westchester had the upper hand after beating the Lions twice in the regular season.
A sold-out crowd came to witness how the first of this year’s duels would turn out. As expected, the game didn’t disappoint the spectators.
“Every game means a lot to us,” said Westchester senior forward Jarrel Lake, who scored seven points in the victory and was a force in the first half. “We got to show everybody that we’re number one in California.
“This is our time.”
It was the Comets’ time in the end, but the Lions seemed as though they might be ready to dethrone Westchester for most of the game.
Fairfax took the lead early in the second quarter after a 15-15 first-quarter score and held the advantage until Westchester began its impressive fourth-quarter comeback effort on a 16-0 run.
The Comets were ignited in their comeback with a huge alley-oop slam by Johnson to cut the Fairfax lead to 56-52 with five minutes to play.
Westchester evened the score at 56-56 after senior forward Ray Reese, who was a big factor in the Comet scoring with 16 points and six rebounds, made a shot off the backboard.
Johnson then took over, giving the Comets their first lead with four minutes left, and attacking the hoop for 12 fourth-quarter points that helped boost his team ahead for good.
Fairfax seemed to be in good shape before the final quarter, but the Lions couldn’t answer the late charge by the Comets and were held to only eight points.
Duke University-bound forward Jamal Boykin, who led Fairfax with 12 points and six rebounds, was contained to four points by Westchester’s man-to-man defense in the fourth quarter.
“We told ourselves, if we played defense we’d be fine,” Lake said. “We picked it up on defense and that’s it.
“They wanted it more than us at first, and we did not play hard enough.”
The Lions came out strong in the beginning and jumped out to a seven-point lead before Westchester made a score.
Johnson, who finished with six blocks, stepped it up for the Westchester defense in the first quarter with a huge blocked shot to keep the score tied with 20 seconds remaining.
Fairfax found early success in containing Westchester scoring with a zone defense that gave the Comets trouble and forced turnovers. The Lions went into halftime ahead 34-29 and jumped out to a 12-point lead during the third quarter, before Westchester found its touch and started to close the gap.
“Their zone did a good job breaking the press and it gave us trouble,” Comets coach Ed Azzam said.
“As the game went on we wore them down.”
Westchester was able to wear the Lions down and take control in the fourth quarter even without the presence of University of Connecticut-bound guard Marcus Johnson, who was out with an ankle injury.
The victory over the Lions proved that Westchester is at the top of the league for now and on the path to another league title, which is the first of many goals for this season, Azzam said.
“It means we’re in first place in the league and that’s the first step,” he said.