BASKETBALL PLAYOFFS: Dinuba boys grind way into D-II title game

Top-seeded Emperors turn away challenge from Sunnyside, will take on No. 2 Mission Prep in 8 p.m. finals Feb. 23 at Selland Arena in Fresno

DInuba High’s Brice Watley (23) challenges a drive to the basket by Sunnyside High’s D.J. Johnson (5) during the first half of the Emperors’ 38-35 victory over the Wildcats in a Central Section Division II semifinal at Dinuba High on Feb. 23. The senior forward-center had 11 points, eight rebounds and two blocks. (Jon Earnest)
DInuba High’s Brice Watley (23) challenges a drive to the basket by Sunnyside High’s D.J. Johnson (5) during the first half of the Emperors’ 38-35 victory over the Wildcats in a Central Section Division II semifinal at Dinuba High on Feb. 23. The senior forward-center had 11 points, eight rebounds and two blocks. (Jon Earnest)
Jon Earnest
Published February 21, 2024  • 
11:00 am

DINUBA – Next stop, Selland Arena.

Top-seeded Dinuba High’s veteran squad combined a dominating defensive performance with clutch baskets and free throws down the stretch on the night of Feb. 20, holding off the No. 2 seed Sunnyside High Wildcats 38-35 in a Central Section Division II semifinal clash at a packed Dinuba High gym.

It marks the first section finals appearance in five years for Dinuba (28-3), which finished second in D-III to Immanuel before reaching the NorCal Regionals D-V finals in 2019. This year, the Emperors will take on No. 2 Mission Prep (12-17, a 67-56 winner over No. 3 Hoover) in an 8 p.m. tipoff in Fresno on Friday, Feb. 23.

Coach Jeff Schofield credited his veteran team’s defensive performance, which limited Sunnyside (24-6) to 22% field goal shooting (15 of 67) including just 4 of 25 (16%) from 3-point range. The Wildcats’ final 3 try was a desperation air ball from C.J. Jones, who led his team with 14 points but hit just 4 of 11 shots.

“They were really good defensively in a grind-it-out game. It’s been our style,” Schofield said. “Those guys make your job a lot easier with their control on the court.”

Senior guard-forward Javier Torres, a four-year varsity veteran who played a COVID 19-shortened 2021 season as a freshman, savored the opportunity to get a chance to play for a section title.

“It feels great. Mainly I wanted to do this with my coaches, they’ve been going at it for a long time,” he said. “It doesn’t mean more to me than just getting it for them and the one thing is just the chance to win.”

Torres finished with 10 points, six rebounds and four assists while helping run the floor and keeping the team’s poise down the stretch. And as usual, junior guard Josiah Torres (team-high 13 points, four 3-pointers) and senior forward-center Brice Watley (11 points eight rebounds and two blocked shots) turned in equally important contributions.

Ochoa had two of his 3-pointers while Torres and Watley each added four points in the second quarter, when Dinuba made an 18-9 run to grab a 25-18 halftime lead it never relinquished. Sunnyside crept within two points after three quarters and then a single point late in the fourth before Torres sank two clutch free throws with 10 seconds remaining.

“I’ve struggled all season with free throw shooting, but when it mattered I got it done,” Torres said. “I’m proud of (Watley and Ochoa), they make life easier for me and I couldn’t be more grateful to have them as my teammates.”

After Sunnyside crept within two points to start the fourth quarter, Dinuba’s defense turned away a pair of potential tying baskets before Torres fed Watley for a layup. The defense forced another missed shot, and after a missed a 3-pointer from the corner the ball trickled out top to Ochoa who drained a long straightaway 3 for a seven-point lead as the crowd erupted.

Dinuba’s defense answered most every Sunnyside offensive salvo, despite shooting just 39% from the field, which kept the visitors in range. Malachi Barnes had 12 points while point guard D.J. Johnson added six points despite fouling out in the final minute.

“I’m just grateful for another opportunity to practice tomorrow,” Torres said. “As coach has been saying all season, just go 1-0 every night. Celebrate tonight and go on to the next (game).”

Jon Earnest
Reporter