LA VERNE >> Damien’s Cameron Shelton was an unsung role player on Chino Hills’ undefeated state championship team a year ago.
The change of scenery to Damien, however, unleashed unlimited potential and it was on full display in Damien’s 78-69 victory over Corona Centennial in the first round of the CIF Southern Section Open Division boys basketball playoffs.
Damien (26-3) advances to the quarterfinals for the second straight year. On Tuesday, the Spartans will face top seed Sierra Canyon (26-1) at Simi Valley high school. Sierra Canyon had to sweat out a 99-93 victory over Heritage Christian to advance.
Shelton scored inside, outside and got to the foul line to post a game-high 29 points. Elijah McCullough added 18 points, Ezekiel Alley had 12 and Justin Hemsley finished with 11 to give the Spartans four players in double figures.
But clearly, it was Shelton’s night.
“He’s an incredible competitor,” Damien coach Mike LeDuc said of Shelton. “We’ve got a lot of competitors on this team but Shelton, he just loves to compete. He doesn’t back down from any challenge. He’s such a pleasure to have.”
Centennial’s inside force, 6-foot-10 UCLA signee Jalen Hill, was limited to 17 points and 11 rebounds, partly due to the workmanlike effort from Damien’s 6-4 freshman Austin Cook.
Paul Vilela added 12 points and DJ Davis, a freshman who transferred to Centennial from Riverside Poly with four games to play, finished with 11 points.
Damien built an early lead on second-chance points and connecting from deep.
The Spartans raced to an 8-0 cushion and led 22-8 after McCullough’s corner 3-pointer.
But the Huskies closed the quarter on a 6-0 run and scored the first four of the second quarter to trim the Spartans’ lead to 24-20 following Jaylen Clark’s dunk.
Davis sank a pair of free throws with 5:29 left in the half to cut the Spartans’ lead to 26-24, but the Spartans closed the half on a 9-0 run, culminating with Warren Bryan’s running 3-pointer to beat the buzzer for a 42-31 lead at half.
Centennial’s slow start and inability to control the boards was not just a first-half problem, it continued in the second half to the frustration of Huskies coach Josh Giles.
“We had a lot of missed layups, lot of defensive breakdowns,” Giles said. “We didn’t rebound very well and I thought that would be a huge advantage, but it wasn’t.
“We knew coming in they shoot and score, but I felt we left a lot of points out there. You can’t give a team that many possessions. We have a 6-10 guy, a 6-8 guy and we’re giving up 20 offensive rebounds. We have nobody to blame but ourselves.”
Centennial pulled to within one midway through the third quarter, but the Spartans stretched the lead back to double digits and held on, leading from start to finish.
“We talked about the quick start and everyone played good,” Shelton said. “We got the (eighth) seed and a lot of people didn’t give us much of a chance. We thought we should have been seeded better so we came out with a chip on our shoulder and got after it.”
While Sierra Canyon advances to face Heritage Christian in the consolation semifinals on Tuesday, Damien will get ready to meet a star-studded opponent.
Sierra Canyon boasts one of the top juniors in the country in 6-10 Marvin Bagley III, who is averaging 24 points and 10 rebounds with offers from Kentucky, Duke, UCLA and others.
And if that’s not enough, it also boasts well-known seniors in UCLA-bound Cody Riley, who averages 16 points, and Arizona State commit Remy Martin
“We’ve faced the top team in the country (Chino Hills) four times in the last two years,” LeDuc said. “We’ve faced other top teams in the country too, so we’ve gotten kind of used to it. We’ll go there and give it everything we’ve got. What else can you do.”