Wild finish thrills Milken Wildcats’ faithful
With just seconds left and time for one final play, Ilana Shirian, parent of a Milken student, scanned the crowd of approximately 1,000 fans of both boys basketball teams — Milken Community Schools and Shalhevet High School. All around her, students, parents, faculty members, alumni and board members filled the bleachers on both sides of the gym, which was electrified with excitement, nervousness and joy.
“Look at the energy in the room,” she said.
In a way, it almost didn’t matter which of the Jewish teams won the California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section (CIF SS) division 4A championship on March 1. This was a game — and a moment — few would forget. It was close for almost all of its 32 minutes, with Milken hanging on for a 54-52 victory in the Crespi Carmelite High School gymnasium in Encino.
According to jewishhoopsamerica.com, a resource for Jewish high school basketball in North America, the game marked the first time two Jewish high school teams have squared off in a California sectional championship. And it was Milken’s first sectional championship victory.
After its victory over Shalhevet, Milken was slated to compete in the first round of the 2017 CIF state boys basketball championships in Division 4, visiting West High School in Torrance on March 8. Tickets are $9 at the door.
Meanwhile, Shalhevet, which also qualified to compete in the CIF state playoffs, elected instead to travel to New York to compete in the March 2-6 Red Sarachek Basketball Tournament at Yeshiva University in New York. The Firehawks lost, 49-47, in the championship game to the Frisch School Cougars of Paramus, N. J.
To many in the crowd just a few nights earlier, though, the victory belonged to Milken and Shalhevet students who helped created an atmosphere of unprecedented school spirit in support for their teams.
“This is probably the closest thing I’ve experienced here to a real Midwestern sporting event,” said Kelly Shepard, Milken department chair of performing arts, who was raised in Indiana, where basketball is a way of life.
Standing beside Shepard was Kimberly Schwartz, Milken upper school principal, who said the team was “riding the biggest wave of school spirit Milken has ever seen.”
Rabbi Ari Segal, Shalhevet head of school, said the game was about more than winning or losing. “I say with no joke, the thing that gives me the most pride is that this is the menschiest team you’ll ever see,” Segal said of the Firehawks. “These are great, great boys.”
The teams were closely matched over the course of the season. Milken, coached by Mike Whiting, had a record of 21-6 going into the game against Shalhevet; Shalhevet, coached by Ryan Coleman, was 26-7 going into the game.
“Most of these kids are friends, off the court. They know each other, they’re part of the same community. We had a great turnout for the entire community and more than that, they played hard, the right way,” said Milken Head of School Gary Weisserman, who created a Kiddush Cup that went to the winning squad. “Either team could have won.”
Roars, chants and applause resounded at the tipoff. Milken took several minutes before it founding its groove, as Kian Zar, a senior, sank the team’s first basket, a three-pointer, 3 minutes, 20 seconds into the game.
Sharp three-point shooting had helped propel Milken to victory over Riverside Notre Dame High School on Feb. 25 in one of the semifinal games, said CIF SS communications director Thom Simmons.
At the half against Shalhevet, Milken led, 29-26, after Doron Matian, a junior, made a half-court shot at the buzzer.
With two minutes left in the game, Milken clung to a 51-47 lead, which closed to 54-52 with 17.8 seconds remaining. Shalhevet called timeout. Then, with three seconds left, senior Eitan Halpert of Shalhevet made a final drive to the basket but missed a layup.
“I’m so happy!” Milken junior Stephanie Afari said, watching her boyfriend, Josh Afshani, receive a championship T-shirt.
Shalhevet senior Ben Harel felt differently.
“We could’ve won. We had a good chance of winning. Our good player missed a layup, a very important layup,” he said.
It didn’t take long for Halpert to bounce back from his team’s loss. The Shalhevet senior scored 26 points and had 15 rebounds against Frisch at Yeshiva University.
In the locker room at Crespi, Milken’s 6-foot-4 junior forward, Amitai Afenjar, 17, sat with bags of ice taped to his ankles. If he were in pain, no one would have known. He led the Wildcats with 18 points.
“This is our moment, this is our big moment. We are about to make history,” Afenjar told the Journal. “We are making history.”
The season, the game and the thrilling final seconds contributed to a swell of team spirit that was something of a new phenomenon at Milken, junior Mira Berenbaum said.
“It’s pretty incredible,” she said. “The school didn’t have much spirit before the playoffs. “Now the whole school here is here.”
Even school administrators appeared to catch the fever. During halftime, Leon Janks, a member of the Milken board of trustees (and a Jewish Journal board member), said what was probably on the minds of many in the stands: “[Whoever wins], at least one of the teams will be Jewish.”