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ATLANTA — The ability of Daniel Lewis and Chuma Okeke to get others involved and score as well helped Westlake win the first of two guaranteed battles against Wheeler this season.
Lewis scored 20 points and handed out five assists, and fellow senior Okeke added 14 points and six assists as the Lions defeated the Wildcats 73-67 at home in front of a packed gym, which included Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl and associate coach Chuck Person, Friday night.
“I’m just impressed with the coaching staff as far as preparation and I’m very impressed with our players,” Westlake coach Darron Rogers said. “Wheeler is a heck of a basketball program. I try to tell my guys that being the defending state champs then you get a powerhouse to come over to your place first that you better take advantage of it.
“I thought they played hard and with enthusiasm,” Rogers said. “I thought our crowd was a factor. The Westlake basketball program served notice to the region that we are going to come and play hard. We are not at our best right now. Wheeler is not at its best. They will be better. We are not going to be walking around with our head up in the air. We are just thankful our guys competed and that is all we can ask for.”
With Wheeler (4-2, 2-1) knocking down four 3-pointers early in the first quarter and going up nine twice in the frame, Westlake (5-1, 2-0) appeared on the verge of getting run out of its own gym.
But the Lions proved the game is not always decided in one quarter by outscoring the visitors 27-8 in the following frame to essentially take control of the contest.
With Westlake down six at the start of the second, Okeke kept the momentum going in his team’s favor with a layup and Lewis highlighted the 10-0 run by converting a tough left-handed layup for a three-point play for a 22-21 score. Okeke capped the burst with a pair of free throws to briefly give the Lions a one-point lead.
After Jordan Usher (12 points) made two free throws to put Wheeler back ahead, Westlake separated itself with a 17-2 surge. To ignite things, Chase Hunter found Christopher Berry for a 3-pointer and Okeke found D’Antay Page for another shot from deep. Later, Kelvin Simeon (10 points, 10 boards, four blocks) slammed home a rebound for a 32-24 advantage, and after Darius Perry (18 points) interrupted the run with a jumper, Okeke found Joseph Markham for a 3-pointer.
“When Danny got in foul trouble, we put [Chuma] at point because Danny’s brother James is out,” Rogers said. “We thought Chuma ran the point well. We hadn’t done it before but we put him in the middle of the floor because he draws so much attention and he can handle the ball like a 3 and he makes real good decisions.”
Okeke added a pair of foul shots and afterwards the Auburn signee found Markham for another 3-pointer and a 40-26 lead.
“I think our bench changed everything,” said Okeke, who also had eight rebounds, three steals and three blocks. “We had some players come off the bench who didn’t really do too much in other games but this game they really showed up and that changed the momentum of the game. Our coaches have been telling us to trust other people instead of just the starting five. Coach [Rogers] always tells me every time I get the ball the defense is going to collapse on me and there are going to be people open so I look for them and they knocked down the shots.”
Just before the end of the quarter, Robert Norwood, who was drifting to his left, nailed the Lions’ seventh 3-pointer of the half, resulting in a 43-30 score at the break.
“I came into the game hoping my guys wouldn’t settle for the three but we played some guys who we hadn’t played a lot,” Rogers said. “We got two threes from a player who was like our 12th man and we got a three from a guy who generally doesn’t play at all so trusting them helped us win the game. A lot of times coaches don’t trust those guys. This time we did and it paid dividends.”
In the third quarter, Westlake maintained a double-digit lead for much of the frame until Kenny Aninye (13 points) knocked down a 3-pointer for a 56-49 score with eight minutes of play left.
With the use of a full-court trapping defense, Wheeler crept within three points (58-55) early in the quarter on a dunk by E.J. Montgomery (eight points, eight rebounds). But after breaking the press, Lewis found Simeon for back-to-back dunks for a 62-55 advantage with 4:25 to go.
“When we lost Michael Durr, we thought our post play was going to be a little trouble for us but [Kelvin] has stabilized our post,” Rogers said.
The Wildcats got as close as three on two more occasions and then a point (66-65) after a pair of free throws by Usher with 39 seconds remaining. Seven seconds later, Wheeler put Lewis on the line. After sinking the first foul shot, the UCF commit missed the second free throw but managed to get his own rebound despite being the only Westlake player on that end of the floor. (The Wildcats got caught going through the motions like my New Hanover ninth-grade basketball coach Willie Dixon used to yell in displeasure about.)
Lewis made his next two foul shots as the Lions went on to seal things from the stripe.
“Wheeler has about seven or eight Division-I players and to hold them under 70 points was monumental,” Rogers said.
Westlake junior James Lewis missed the game due to an injured foot. Wheeler is scheduled to host the Lions on January 24.