From Rich Ruben
Third seed Mater Dei (now 26-2) hosted sixth seed Damien (27–2) in a CIF Southern Section Open Division playoff game Friday night. For Trojan fans, the game presented the opportunity to watch two Trojan signees who will arrive on campus in July in Mater Dei’s 6’10” Harrison Hornery and Damien’s 6’4” Malik Thomas. The Monarchs built a big first half lead but turned cold from the floor and led only 33-27 at the half. The inability to score continued in the second half and the Spartans pulled off the 55-51 upset.
Hornery Carried The Monarchs In The First Half
Harrison was spectacular in the first half making four of seven shots including four of five threes and six of nine from the line for 18 points. No other Monarch consistently scored and when Harrison could not duplicate his first half production the much taller Monarchs struggled in the second half. The Spartans changed their defense at the half and swarmed Harrison every time he touched the ball. The good looks from beyond the three point line weren’t there in the second half and Harrison converted only two of seven shots including one three and made only one of three from the line to finish with a game high 24 points. Harrison entered the game making over 80% of his free throws but in this game was only 7-12.
Damien has only one true big and he defended the Monarch’s other 6’10” senior who plays inside, leaving guards to double team Harrison. When he was closely guarded Harrison struggled and was unable to rise above the smaller defenders from outside or to take advantage of his size inside. With no one else scoring for Mater Dei the Spartans were able to slow Harrison down and complete the upset.
The Monarchs played a high/low post offense on a number of possessions with Harrison near the free throw line. He didn’t take any shots from the high post but did pick up three assists when he found his fellow big inside. The ball doesn’t stick when he gets it and Harrison moves without the ball to find openings in the defense. He also took a charge and fights for rebounds. Malik Thomas defended Harrison for a few possessions late in the game.
Harrison is a dynamic scorer in the mold of Bennie Boatwright when he has room on the perimeter. Also like Bennie when he was a freshman Harrison will need to improve his toughness and his ability to drive the ball when a defender is in his face outside. Harrison is a bigger and better version of Noah Baumann. Harrison surveys the court and finds open teammates much better than Noah and is a much better rebounder and defender.
If Isaiah Mobley returns next season as expected Harrison may find it difficult to get into the front court rotation. If Isaiah turns pro or if there is a front court injury Harrison may get some meaningful minutes. Harrison has a unique skill set which no other Trojan on next season’s team possesses. Defenses can’t leave him alone outside because he is too good from the three point line. In some situations Enfield may turn to him for offense or to bring an opponent’s big away from the basket. Regardless of how much he plays this season he will contribute over his Trojan career.
Thomas Did Not Have A Big Game But Was Clutch From The Line
Malik scored “only” 19 points and didn’t dominate as he often does. He made three of nine shots and two of four from three. However, he helped close the game by drawing fouls and converting late free throws. He made nine of ten from the line in the second half, most of them in the closing minutes, and made eleven of thirteen foul shots on the night.
Malik had an uncharacteristically quiet first half with seven points. He turned an ankle and missed the last 2 1/2 minutes of the third quarter but returned to play the entire fourth quarter even though he was obviously in pain and had a slight limp.
Damien usually looks to Malik in key moments but in this game he did not appear to be fully engaged until the final quarter. The Spartans instead relied on one of the other guards for scoring until the fourth quarter. Malik is at his best attacking the basket and was fearless against the much bigger Monarchs inside. He drew fouls several times late in the game on drives to the basket and hit a key three in the closing minutes. He plays a physical game and doesn’t shy away from contact. The Mater Dei defense keyed on Malik the entire game and he didn’t get open looks. The perimeter shots he made were contested and difficult.
Malik turned the ball over at least three times on drives into traffic, slipping and falling on two of the turnovers. He is not the primary ball handler for Damien but on important possessions they put the ball in his hands. How much he plays this coming season for the Trojans may depend on whether he can have the same success driving the ball inside against college front lines and how consistent he will be from three; he may get more open looks because he won’t be the primary focus of Trojan opponents’ defenses, at last not this year.
Malik seems to take some defensive possessions off. The Trojan coaching staff will force him to play defense every possession if he wants playing time.
The Trojans will have only two experienced guards this season, Ethan Anderson and Boogie Ellis. Hopefully Ethan will be fully recovered from his back issues. The amount of playing time Malik and the other two freshman guards will see may depend in part whether Enfield uses Drew Peterson and Isaiah White in the backcourt. If USC plays long stretches with one guard and Drew or Isaiah as hybrid guards/wings it will be tough for Malik to get a lot of playing time. This may be the deepest Trojan team ever Malik and the other talented freshmen will need to earn their minutes.
The Trojans won’t have a one-and-done player for the first time in four years. Instead this team can bring fresh players in waves. Isaiah Mobley (probably), Chevez Goodwin, Josh Morgan and Boubacar Coulibaly make up a deep front court and Harrison may be slotted there as well.
Drew Peterson, Isaiah White and Max Agbonkpolo are three experienced wings and Harrison could see some time on the wing.
Ethan, Boogie, Malik, Reese Waters and Kobe Johnson are the natural guards. The three freshman will get the opportunity to impress the coaching staff when fall practice begins and they may also have to fight off the wing players for playing time. For the first time in many years or decades the Trojans will have thirteen quality players. If some of the four freshmen and the two young returning bigs can contribute in meaningful ways this Trojan team should be ranked in the top 25 team and play in March Madness.