BASKETBALL PLAYOFFS: Dinuba’s record season ends in SoCal D-III Regional

Price High team proves too much for top seeds in 60-50 loss, ends Emperors’ record 29-4 season highlighted by first section championship since 1929

DInuba High’s Javier Torres prepares to slash to the basket against Price High defender Keshrey Smith Jr. during the first half of the Emperors’ 60-50 loss to the Knights in the first round of the CIF Southern California regional playoffs on Feb. 27. The four-year varsity veteran guard scored 10 points to conclude a prep career that included two league championships and the school’s first section basketball title since 1929 (Jon Earnest)
Jon Earnest
Published February 28, 2024  • 
11:00 am

DINUBA – For the first time in a magical and historic season, the Dinuba High basketball team couldn’t size up to the opposition. Literally.

The visiting Price High Knights from Los Angeles — featuring five player 6-foot-4 inches or taller — used their overall height advantage and quickness Tuesday night to methodically overpower the Central Section Division II champion Emperors by a 60-50 score in a Southern California Division III first round matchup in a jam-packed Dinuba High gym.

The loss snapped a 17-game win streak for Dinuba (29-4), which set a school record for victories and captured the program’s first section basketball championship since 1929. It also marked the final varsity games for four-year veteran Javier Torres, forward-center Brice Watley and starters Angel Sanchez and Diego Tuttle along with five other seniors.

Emperors coach Jeff Schofield praised the heart and determination of his team to battle against a daunting physical matchup. Price (21-11) also had the fresher legs, having been off for 10 days after losing in the semifinal round of the Southern Section Division 4-AA playoffs on Feb. 16.

“We hung for a while, that’s a pretty dang good team,” he said of the Knights. “I’m proud of our guys and the way they competed. We didn’t play our best game and I felt that might be the case, we were pretty drained, but we put it all out there.”

Price coach Casey Trujeque knew his team faced a road test coming to the Central Valley.

“Their coaching staff is amazing, and they’ve had a great year coming in at 29-3,” he said. “We knew this wasn’t an easy run. Hats off to a great crowd and the environment was perfect. I want people to know how much adversity this team has gone through.”

A roaring partisan Dinuba crowd was treated to a highly competitive first quarter, with the Emps emerging with a 16-14 lead thanks to six points from Sanchez (including a tip-in to close the period) and five from sharpshooting junior guard Josiah Ochoa.

A 3-point basket by sophomore guard Michael Espirito gave Dinuba its final lead of the night at 21-19, but Price began exerting its offensive will and size against the Emps’ usually solid zone defense. Six-foot-5 Aaron Williams scored to give Price a 23-20 lead and Keshrey Smith Jr. scored inside on a traditional 3-point play to make it 25-21 before closing out the half with a 3-pointer in the closing seconds to make it 30-23 at the break.

“I watched a lot of film, and actually we ran that 2-3 zone,” Trujeque said. “We thought we had the size advantage and were a little bit bigger and faster, so we just came out (second half) and tried to ratchet it up on them.”

The ratchet was applied with sporadic and then more regular full-court pressure, with the taller Knights guards forcing turnovers and making it increasingly difficult for Dinuba to run its half-court offense. After a driving layup by Watley cut the deficit to five points, Price went on a 16-5 run to open up a 46-33 lead in the final two minutes of the third.

Ochoa (who finished with 12 points) hit his final 3-pointer of the night to cut the deficit to 10 points after three, but the Emperors were unable to get it back to single digits during the final eight minutes. As the clock wound down, Price smartly worked seconds off on each possession, and when Dinuba increased its full court pressure the Knights slashed through the defense for easy layups including three dunks.

Watley, the Emps’ lone true post presence, scored 10 of his team-high 14 in the second half and added five rebounds and two assists.

“We were getting the shots we wanted, we just weren’t getting the rebounds we wanted,” he said. “The second chances were really giving us some problems. It was awesome (this season), Dinuba loves us and was so proud of us and it was great to win (section) for them.”

Torres, a member of the two winningest DHS teams as far as victories go in program history, scored all 10 of his points in the second half while adding eight rebounds and three assists. His final shot in an Emperors uniform fittingly was a 3-point basket in the closing seconds.

“It was a great experience for our guys, for the juniors and sophomores coming up and for me and Brice for the next level,”  Torres said. “I’m grateful for the fans, they traveled to every game, and when we lost they started cheering us out of the locker room. I appreciate everyone that’s come out to a game, and for everything they’ve done for us.”

“Our kids gave it their best effort,” Schofield said. “It’s the most wins we’ve had in our history , and we’re proud of them. We definitely have some big holes to fill and we’re going to truly miss those guys.”

Jon Earnest