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HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL

King to play Westchester in Division I Regional boys' basketball championship

The Wolves, who don't have a marquee roster, are making their case for respect with their performance in the playoffs. They take on Westchester on Saturday.

March 14, 2009|Ben Bolch

Riverside King High venturing to a hoops hotbed such as Pauley Pavilion is like an obscure actor being thrust onto the cover of People magazine.

In fact, the Wolves might have a tough time just getting past security tonight without proper credentials.

You guys are who? From where?

This is a team without a McDonald's All-American or any player headed for a college destination more glamorous than San Diego or Portland.

King's opponent tonight in the Southern California Division I regional boys' basketball championship is none other than Westchester, a team with a 33-2 record, some serious star wattage, and 10 City Section titles on its resume.

Yet you can't count out the Wolves, which was never more evident than when they fell behind Woodland Hills Taft by 14 points in the second half of a regional semifinal Thursday.

When San Diego State-bound forward Kawhi Leonard picked up his fourth foul and went to the bench late in the third quarter, King was left with Portland State signee Chris Harriel as its biggest "star" on the floor for the next five minutes.

Which, of course, turned out just fine. Harriel made a flurry of layups and three-point baskets, senior forward Tony Snell snagged rebounds, senior guard J.J. Campbell blocked one shot with such velocity that the ball went flying all the way to half court, and the Wolves were on their way to a 58-48 victory.

"We had a lot of people step up when we really needed it," said Harriel, who single-handedly outscored Taft, 22-14, in the second half. "We're willing to do whatever it takes to win."

It was a spine-tingling turnaround for a resilient group of players who can overcome foul trouble or an off night -- even by nearly the entire team. Coach Tim Sweeney Jr. said the Wolves play with a chip on their shoulder because they feel they are constantly overlooked.

"You place any of these kids on Westchester's team and you're looking at kids who are going to high-major schools like the Pac-10," Sweeney said. "Our players don't get the same respect. We know that. What we're trying to do, it's not just playing for us but the respect of Inland [Empire] kids and Inland basketball."

King has three senior starters who don't know yet whether they will be playing basketball in college next season.

But perceptions may be changing. The Wolves didn't just beat top-ranked Santa Ana Mater Dei in the Southern Section Division I-AA championship, they routed the nation's top-ranked team -- with a lineup of players headed to North Carolina, UCLA and USC -- by 15 points.

That victory lifted King (30-2) to a top seeding in the regionals -- and the Wolves made another believer with the way they played against Taft.

"They never, ever stop believing they're going to win," Toreadors Coach Derrick Taylor said. "They just will not go away."

Why would they?

Among the options Sweeney has at his disposal in addition to the multitalented Leonard, who is making a strong case to be considered the top player in Southern California:

* Snell, a 6-foot-7 senior forward who has made a surprisingly seamless transition from guard to big man after growing four inches over the summer. "He's never played the five [center post position] in his life," assistant coach Fred Powers said.

* Senior guard Steven Mallory, a sparkplug who scored 10 points off the bench during King's victories in regional first-round and quarterfinal games.

* Senior guard Taylor Cunningham, a steady ballhandler who rarely commits a turnover.

* Campbell, a defensive stopper who routinely shuts down an opponent's best wing player.

* Harriel, a fiery leader who is capable of big scoring outbursts.

The Wolves have not lost a game this season in which all their players were healthy and available; a 78-73 loss against national power Marietta (Ga.) Wheeler in December came on a day in which Leonard, Snell and Harriel repeatedly vomited because of sickness, and a 63-61 loss to Corona Centennial in January came with Harriel sidelined by a hip injury.

"They're the best team in the state and it's going to be very difficult to beat them," said Taylor, whose Toreadors suffered a five-point loss to Westchester in the City title game. "They've got shooters, they've got athletes, they've got ballhandlers. We could play them 10 times and we'd have a hard time winning any of them."

Not bad for a bunch of no names.

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Southern California Regional

Basketball Championships

TODAY AT PAULEY PAVILION, UCLA

Girls' Division III: Marlborough (23-10) vs. Inglewood (17-16), 10 a.m.

Boys' Division III: North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake (28-6) vs. Huntington Beach Ocean View (26-7), noon

Girls' Division II: Santa Ana Mater Dei (32-0) vs. Brea Olinda (31-2), 2 p.m.

Boys' Division II: L.A. Loyola (26-6) vs. Rialto Eisenhower (30-3), 4 p.m.

Girls' Division I: Ontario Colony (31-3) vs. Long Beach Poly (30-3), 6 p.m.

Boys' Division I: Riverside King (30-2) vs. Westchester (33-2), 8 p.m.

TODAY AT TITAN GYM, CAL STATE FULLERTON

Girls' Division V: Burbank Bell-Jeff (32-1) vs. L.A. View Park (28-8), 1 p.m.

Boys' Division V: L.A. Windward (27-6) vs. Pacific Hills (28-6), 3 p.m.

Girls' Division IV: La Jolla Bishop's (30-2) vs. Chula Vista Mater Dei (28-3), 5 p.m.

Boys' Division IV: Torrance Bishop Montgomery (27-4) vs. L.A. Price (29-5), 7 p.m.

Tickets: $40 for courtside, $20 for arena level, $16 for general admission and $10 for students, seniors and children at Pauley Pavilion. $12 for general admission and $8 for students, seniors and children at Cal State Fullerton.

Parking: $8 at both venues.

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