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COLLEGE PARK – A junior guard took over Thursday's boys basketball showdown in the Class 3A state semifinals at the University of Maryland's Comcast Center. Except, it was not the player most were expecting.
Instead of Milford Mill's Justin Jenifer guiding his team to a second straight trip to the state championship game, the Baltimore County Player of the Year saw Westlake's Dominic Espeleta steal the spotlight for the underdog Wolverines.
Espeleta showcased the game of his life as a first-year varsity starter, enjoying a coming-out party for all the state to see that he is a primetime performer that boasts the poise and confidence to thrive on such a grand stage.
The 6-foot, deceivingly quick and agile point guard erupted for a game-high 27 points on 8-of-11 shooting, including 3 of 5 behind the arc, while sinking 8 of 10 free throws to carry Westlake to a 71-68 upset of the defending champion Millers.
In the process, Espeleta outplayed Jenifer, who finished with 23 points to lead Milford Mill but shot less than 50 percent from the field (7 of 15) and missed 6 of 7 three-pointers. Westlake's box-and-one defense for much of the game, throwing an array of defenders at Jenifer, effectively did its job in containing the standout.
“I just wanted to go right at them,” the low-key Espeleta said after he also hauled in five rebounds and dished out three assists in the state semifinals victory. “That's a good team. It didn't matter how many points I scored. I was just trying to beat that team.”
The win advances Westlake (22-4 overall), the 3A South Region champion, to its first state final, occurring at 3 p.m. Saturday back inside Comcast Center against Baltimore's City College (26-0), the 3A East champion. City defeated Urbana of Frederick County, the 3A West champion, 56-36, in the other state semifinal Thursday.
“It was a big win just because Milford Mill is always a good team and they were the defending champions, so if we wanted to win states, which is our goal all year, we had to beat the champs,” said Westlake coach Edward Mouton Sr., who celebrated the 4A state title three years ago as a North Point assistant. “I told my team that we must attack them. I knew they were going to come at us, that's just the way they play. We weren't coming out here just to be in the game; we were coming to win.
“I thought my guys were the better team so [I told them], 'Let's go play like the better team.'”
No other Westlake player managed double digits in scoring beside Espeleta, who was averaging 12.1 points per game entering states.
Senior guard Desi Wiseman, Westlake's leading scorer on the season (14.4 points per game), scored all eight of his points after intermission. Teammates Chris Craft, Omar Alston and Gabriel Jarvis each scored eight as well.
Westlake shadowed Jenifer, averaging 17.3 points per game this season, in its box-and-one set primarily with Jarvis along with Randy Johnson and Chad Stanford, disrupting the usual flow of Milford Mill's offense.
Mouton estimated that he used four to five different defenders to man up on Jenifer in the box-and-one.
“He's such a great player that I just wanted him to work for everything he got today,” the Westlake coach said of Jenifer. “I was testing the other guys [on Milford Mill] to make them beat us.”
Jarvis added, “We felt like if we took [Jenifer] out [of the flow of] the game, we could take [their team] out of the game and we would win.”
Seemingly every time Westlake needed a bucket from the field or at the line, Espeleta had a knack for making the pivotal play.
“We have a lot of faith in 'Domo,'” Wiseman said, referring to Espeleta's nickname on the team. “'Domo' makes big plays with the ball in his hands, and we trust him to do anything.”
“I challenged Dominic for this game, and I told him about Jenifer,” Mouton added. “[Jenifer] is a big-time ball player that's getting recruited by a lot of people, and here's your chance to show that you can play with the best of them. And I think that's what he did tonight.”
Milford Mill (18-6), the 3A North champion, appeared as if it might run away with the game early on, forcing Westlake into a myriad of first-quarter turnovers en route to a 15-6 lead midway through the period.
But after Westlake slowed down Milford Mill's attack with the box-and-one, running the defense from the five-minute juncture of the first quarter through the third, the Wolverines gradually took control of the game.
The game was tied by halftime at 29. In the third, Westlake took its first lead on the night, 33-31, on a pair of Craft free throws with 5 minutes 31 seconds left in the quarter.
Espeleta later drained a three to ignite an 11-0 run, giving Westlake a 47-37 lead inside the final two minutes of the third.
But Milford Mill fought back, using its pressing defense, and shaved away at a 57-49 deficit with 5:15 left in the game. The Millers led 64-63 with 2:38 left until Jarvis drained a three that gave Westlake the upper hand for good with 2:27 to go.
A free throw battle inside the final 1:36 saw Westlake push its lead to 71-68 with Milford Mill's running three-pointer at the buzzer being off the mark.
“It's never easy coming to Comcast and losing,” Milford Mill head coach Mike Silverman said. “We could've done a better job stopping the penetration of their guards. They beat us off the dribble a little bit.”
Westlake 71, Milford Mill 68
Milford Mill 20 9 13 26
Westlake 14 15 20 22
Milford Mill: Jenifer 23, White Jr. 10, Brown 9, Costley 9, Moore 7, Cooper 4, Alston 4, Charles 2
Westlake: Espeleta 27, Craft 8, Wiseman 8, Alston 8, Jarvis 8, Perry 6, Johnson 2, English 2, Stanford 2
Free throws: Milford Mill 17-27 (Jenifer 8-12); Westlake 19-29 (Espeleta 8-10)
3-point goals: Milford Mill 3 (Brown, Jenifer, Moore); Westlake 6 (Espeleta 3, Jarvis 2, Wiseman)