SECTION BASKETBALL PLAYOFFS: Dinuba boys win D-II final for first section title since 1929

Emperors rally from nine-point deficit to down Mission Prep, open SoCal Regionals as top seed and host No. 16 Price High from Los Angeles on Feb. 27

Dinuba High’s boys basketball team gathered for a group shot with the Central Section Division II championship trophy after defeating Mission Prep by a 46-42 score in the championship game at Fresno’s Selland Arena on Feb. 23. The Emperors (29-3) have drawn the top seed for the Southern California Regional Division III playoffs, and open play against No. 16 Price High of Los Angeles on Tuesday, Feb. 27. (Jon Earnest)
Dinuba High’s boys basketball team gathered for a group shot with the Central Section Division II championship trophy after defeating Mission Prep by a 46-42 score in the championship game at Fresno’s Selland Arena on Feb. 23. The Emperors (29-3) have drawn the top seed for the Southern California Regional Division III playoffs, and open play against No. 16 Price High of Los Angeles on Tuesday, Feb. 27. (Jon Earnest)
Jon Earnest
Published February 26, 2024  • 
11:00 am

FRESNO – It truly was an historic weekend for the Dinuba High boys basketball program.

First, the Emperors (29-3) captured the program’s first Central Section (former Valley) championship in 95 years with a 46-42 comeback victory over the No. 2 seed Mission Prep Royals in the Division II title game before a boisterous partisan Dinuba crowd at Fresno’s Selland Arena the evening of Feb. 23.

Less than 48 hours later, Dinuba High learned it drew the number one seed in the CIF Southern California Regionals, meaning the team would have up to four home games in the coming two weeks in an effort to reach the Friday, March 8, state title game in Sacramento. The first game is Tuesday, Feb. 27 at 7 p.m. in DHS gym against Price High (20-11) from Los Angeles.

Emperors head coach Jeff Schofield said he formally told the team right after the game about it being the school’s first section basketball title since 1929.

“Most of us weren’t born then, so we’re excited,” he cracked to laughter during a post game media session. “We couldn’t be more happy. They’re a special (team), just the way they stick up for each other and they do the right things at school. They’re just high character kids.”

For the fourth time in the past five games during a 17-game win streak, Dinuba weathered a rugged challenge to prevail in a close game. This one was the toughest yet, as the Emps trailed by nine points late in the third quarter before battling back behind a seasoned group of veteran players.

“When the going gets tough, they don’t flinch. And in the end, that’s why we’re able to win most close games,” Schofield said.

Junior sharpshooting guard Josiah Ochoa — who led Dinuba with 17 points and received the team’s Fighting Spirit award after the game — fueled the comeback with a 3-point basket and short baseline shot. In the closing seconds of the quarter after a Royals miss sophomore guard Michael Espirito drained a quarter 3-pointer to beat the buzzer and cap an 8-0 run.

Espirito then sank 2 of 3 free throws after being fouled on a 3-point try to give the Emps a 33-32 lead before a pair of Mission Prep baskets made it 36-33. But Ochoa responded with a floating short shot on a drive and then a 3-pointer from the right wing for a 38-36 lead as the Dinuba partisans stood and roared in unison.

Mission Prep pulled back into a 39-all tie with three minutes left when senior floor general Javier Torres sliced inside for a layup at the 2:40 mark to put Dinuba ahead to stay. The Emps were clinging to a 43-42 lead with 25 seconds remaining when Torres missed the first and then second free throw attempt. But senior wing Angel Sanchez swooped in for an offensive rebound and was fouled, and sank two clutch free throws (the second on a friendly roll) for a three-point cushion.

“Angel got the rebound, and then he stepped up, wiped his hands off and hit both of those free throws. That was huge for us,” Schofield said.

In the closing seconds, the Royals’ Brody Miller and Jayden Nozil missed potential tying 3-point shots — one circling in and out – and Torres fittingly grabbed the rebound and was fouled with less than a second remaining. He sank his second attempt, and the Emps rushed together to celebrate the title as Dinuba’s large following cheered in support.

“We’ve been waiting and working for this all season long, practicing hard. It just feels good,” said Ochoa, who made three 3-pointers while finishing 6 of 14 from the field. “We’ve been working all summer and throughout the season, and we just got really better. We’ve just clicked.”

Torres finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds, fellow senior Brice Watley added eight points and four boards while Espirito provided five points off the bench. Mission Prep’s Roman Benedetti finished with a game-high 19 points including a pair of 3-pointers.

Schofield credited the large Dinuba fanbase with helping to carry the team.

“Our fans are awesome,” he said. “Some of you guys were there (in a semifinal win over Sunnyside) and saw our fans support these boys like no other. And they’re loud. We told (the team) it’s about 80-90%, and we’ve just got to give them reasons to get loud. And they did that.”

Price High lost in the Southern Section’s Division 4-AA semifinal to Yeshiva University Prep by a 47-44 score on Feb. 16.

Jon Earnest
Reporter