After suffering a loss in the first round of a statewide playoff tournament on Wednesday night, Milken Community High School’s basketball coach Mike Whiting said his biggest disappointment was not the defeat but that the game would mark his last with the current squad.
“I’m just sad I won’t have the pleasure of coaching those young men again,” he said after the Wildcats were defeated by the West High School Warriors, 70-57, in the CIF State Boys Basketball Championships – Division 4 tournament. “It’s a very special group of people, and they accomplished something nobody ever has at Milken.”
The game at West High School in Torrance ended Milken’s unprecedented season, which included winning a sectional championship on March 1 against Shalhevet High School and going further than any Milken sports team had gone before.
On Wednesday, it looked as if Milken’s journey would continue as the team played a strong first half, led by the captain, Aaron Harouni, knocking down three three-pointers.
In the second quarter, Milken enjoyed its largest lead of the night, 26-23, behind Amitai Afenjar, the team’s 6-foot-4 junior forward, whose 18 points led the Wildcats last week against Shalhevet. He had six points in the second quarter against West.
But West closed the quarter with three unanswered buckets and led 29-26 at halftime.
Still, hopes were high.
“All I heard is how good these guys are,” Rabbi Menachem Weiss, director of the Israel Center, told the Journal, at halftime. “Meanwhile we’re only one shot away.”
Afenjar and Kian Zar scored consecutive baskets to open the third quarter, but that was the team’s highpoint. West went on a run, outscored Milken by six in the quarter and ran a full-court, defensive press that forced turnovers and gave the Wildcats trouble getting the ball inside to Afenjar, their best player.
Trailing in the fourth quarter, Milken fought on as guard Idan Yohanan sunk a three-pointer that brought Milken within nine, at 59-50. But West maintained its edge the rest of the way, challenging Milken with a steady stream of field goals and forcing Milken to intentionally foul to save time on the clock. West players converted most of their free throws.
Milken students, alumni, parents and faculty endured heavy rush-hour traffic to Torrance to cheer the team on.
“Brian, he’s probably my best friend,” Milken senior Josh Berenbaum said of center Brian Pearlman.
Many Milken fans, including Sam Schiff, a junior who wore a Kanye West T-shirt, arrived, still in high spirits from Milken’s two-point victory over Shalhevet last week. Watching Milken junior Doron Matian, Schiff described him as “the legend, the half court hitter,” a reference to Matian’s Hail-Mary three point shot to close the second half against Shalhevet.
Barbara Iverson, upper school athletic director at Milken, said the bond among the team’s 13 players elevated them above the competition this year.
“In all my years at Milken, I’ve never seen a group of boys so tight,” she said before the game. “The chemistry the team has is unbelievable, like no other team I’ve ever seen.”
Polly Kim, a science research teacher at Milken and former teacher at Stephen Wise Temple, a feeder school for Milken, said watching the boys play this season was nostalgic.
“It’s great to see them all grown up, and play basketball,” she said.
Yohanan hit a three-pointer in the fourth quarter that became his last basket as a member of a team that, according to his mother, Einat, ought to be proud of its success.
“His dream was to bring a championship to Milken,” she said, watching from the stands.
Like Coach Whiting, Harouni, a junior, is sorry he won’t be playing next year with Yohanan, one of the team’s eight graduating seniors.
“Aaron was saying he is sorry it’s over,” Dr. Eddie Harouni, his father, said in a phone interview on Thursday. “He’s not sorry they lost, but he’s sorry it’s over as far as playing with the seniors, the team.”