To see a 16-year-old sophomore basketball player blossom over the course of a five-month high school season and go from a player with potential to a player making three-pointers in an NBA arena and playing such suffocating defense that the other team’s star player is almost invisible explains how valuable 6-foot-8 Nikolas Khamenia has been during March Madness for Harvard-Westlake.
It culminated on the biggest stage at Golden 1 Center on Saturday night with Harvard-Westlake (33-2) validating itself as the No. 1 team in California after a 76-65 victory over Santa Maria St. Joseph in the state Open Division championship game. Though Harvard-Westlake has five starters who surely are headed to college, the player who elevated the Wolverines to state champion in the toughest division was Khamenia.
He took down three-time defending Southern Section Open Division Corona Centennial last week with a 20-point performance. This time, he was assigned to guard St. Joseph’s talented 6-8 Tounde Yessoufou, averaging 28.2 points. He limited him to six points in the first half and 14 points in 32 minutes. Khamenia also scored 16 points, making three three-pointers.
“Like anything, maturation takes its course, and he’s just matured,” coach David Rebibo said. “To see him blossom at this time of the year when the pressure is highest is incredible.”
Harvard-Westlake led at halftime 35-31. The Knights were able to hang around because 6-6 guard Luis Marin kept using his size to maneuver inside and had 15 points, making seven of his eight shots. As usual, the Wolverines were getting contributions from all five starters and Christian Horry came off the bench to make a baseline three-pointer that had his father, Robert, sitting courtside, feeling good.
In the third quarter, the Wolverines made a big adjustment. Brady Dunlap, at 6-8, was assigned to cover Marin, who suddenly stopped scoring. He made one shot the rest of the game. Harvard-Westlake went on a 7-0 surge and took a 48-35 lead.
The players who needed to come through did for Harvard-Westlake. Point guard Trent Perry, the Mission League player of the year, had 16 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds. The 10 assists was a state record for the Open Division. Dunlap scored 16 points. Jacob Huggins had 15 points and 11 rebounds.
The legacy of this Harvard-Westlake team might be in discussion for best in school history. The teams of 1996 and 1997 that won consecutive state Division III championships with the Collins twins, Jason and Jarron, have always been used as the measuring stick for basketball greatness. The 1997 team went 36-1, was ranked No. 1 in California and only lost to national power Mt. Zion Christian Academy of Durham, N.C. Going 33-2 with close losses to Henderson (Nev.) Liberty and Bellflower St. John Bosco were the lone defeats this season. And each time, the Wolverines responded with a vengeance, learning from their mistakes.
“I feel it humbled us,” Perry said of a playoff-pool play loss to St. John Bosco. “We came together and got it done.”
Said Rebibo: “Sometimes a reset is a good thing.”
The future is also bright.
Three of their five starters are underclassmen — Perry, Robert Hinton and Khamenia. Add Horry, the key sixth man, and developing freshman big man Dominique Bentho, and the Wolverines have the makings for another powerful starting lineup for 2023-24.