LA North and LA South: Taft 66, Westchester 62

LOS ANGELES -- Taft boys' basketball coach Derrick Taylor couldn't stop grinning as he walked off the Galen Center court following Saturday's CIF City Section Division I championship game -- well, as he tried to walk off.

Because he couldn't. His wife was waiting patiently, just a quick glance away, by the tunnel, and his players were waiting eagerly for him in the locker room, but fans kept approaching him left and right, a number of new obstacles presenting themselves each step he took. It took Taylor two minutes to get from under the basket to the bench, another two minutes to get from in front of the bench to behind the bench and another two minutes to get from there to the tunnel.

Finally, he had a little bit of space, embracing his wife and attempting to head to the locker room to address his team. But the media beckoned, and Taylor decided to wait just a few more minutes to give his players the congratulations he said they deserved.

"I guess this is my Andy Warhol moment," he quipped.

That's what happens when you beat Westchester. Taylor in his 11th year at Taft, had accomplished a number of worthwhile things in the world of high school basketball, but he had never managed to beat the Comets and legendary coach Ed Azzam in the City Section playoffs. Three times he had tried --- including each of the previous two years -- and three times he had failed.

Taylor's top-seeded Toreadors finally succeeded Saturday, topping Westchester, 66-62, in a spirited effort behind 20 points and 14 rebounds from senior forward C.J. Blackwell and 14 points and 12 assists from point guard Spencer Dinwiddie.

"Coach Taylor had been 0-3 against Westchester in the finals," said Taft forward Stephen Maxwell, who had 18 points and nine rebounds. "He always talks about how he wants to beat Westchester.

"So to come out here and play as hard as we possibly could, it should be a big thing for him."

The Toreadors opened the game low on energy, down 10-6 just four minutes into the first quarter after Westchester's Trevone Williams started pouring in the points. Taylor immediately called a timeout. From there, Taft went on an 18-2 run -- capped by a Blackwell 3-pointer -- to take control of the game, 24-12, shortly after the start of the second quarter. It went back and forth, back and forth, from then on, but the Toreadors never relinquished their lead.

If it looked as if the Toreadors were playing harder than ever before to try to beat Westchester, it's because they were.

"We practice to beat them," Taylor, 46, said afterward. "We practice to beat certain teams only. We don't look past others, but we practice to beat certain teams.

"If you can beat Westchester, you will beat the other teams along the way."

Westchester's Williams tied Blackwell for the game-high with 20 points, and Comets guards Josh Wilson and Keywhom Powns added 12 each. Azzam's Comets were undefeated in Western League play this season and were the second-seeded team in the City playoffs, but they were not the same this season as compared to past years. Prognosticators had expected Taft to win this game since the start of the high school basketball season in November.

"I don't know if it was bound to happen, but obviously it did," said Azzam, who also admitted to gladly serving as a roadblock for Taylor over the years. "Nothing's bound to happen. If we go in there and we make some shots and we make a few more free throws, it could've been the other way around. But we didn't, and they hit shots, and they got big rebounds and they beat us."

Down 56-43 two minutes into the fourth quarter and appearing down for the count, Westchester made it interesting late with an 11-2 run sparked by two straight 3-pointers from Williams, and the Comets were only down four with one minute and change to go before Maxwell made an astute around-the-corner pass to Blackwell for a big dunk, and Dinwiddie sealed it by making six of eight free throws in the final minute.

"I just told the team we had to have composure -- don't panic," said Blackwell, a first-year Toreador who transferred from a suburban Atlanta high school over the summer. "And that's what we did."

Notes: Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin recorded a video introduction to the game that was played just before the starting lineups were announced. ... Longtime Fairfax coach Harvey Kitani watched the game intently from the top of the lower bowl. Kitani's Lions lost to Westchester in the City Section quarterfinals last week. ... Also in attendance were former USC linebacker Malcolm Smith and current Trojans running back D.J. Morgan -- Taft graduates both -- and USC women's basketball coach Michael Cooper. Cooper's Women of Troy play Washington on Sunday in their regular-season finale.