- Blair Angulo, Reporter, WeAreSC.com
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LA VERNE -- Pundits speak highly of the mighty Chris Reyes, a bouncy forward with a relentless motor who is headed to play at Saint Mary's next fall. The chatter is warranted and well deserved, given his ability to affect games on both ends of the floor. Yet most often forget to mention that the Damien Spartans aren't just a one-man troop.
Damien, the top-ranked team in latest CIF-Southern Section Division 3AAA poll, showed its depth Wednesday night, erasing a double-digits halftime deficit and holding on for a 55-50 Sierra League victory over visiting Chino Hills Ayala. Defenders swarmed Reyes throughout, limiting him to just one field goal, but that didn't matter.
It has been a recurring storyline for the resilient Spartans, who sit atop the league standings. They've played 20 games and won 19 of them.
"I don't think we have a great team, I think we have great program," Damien coach Matt Dunn said. "Chris, obviously, is a spectacular player, but the other guys do the things that win games."
Reyes, averaging 18 points per game heading into the night, dealt with constant double- and triple-teams and was held scoreless in the first half as Damien (19-1) faced a 10-point deficit at the break. The Spartans stormed back, though, thanks to the hot right hand of wing Jared Dizon, who had 11 of his team-high 17 points in the second half. Dizon's dagger 3-pointer midway through the third quarter highlighted a frantic 19-4 run, and Damien never coughed up the lead.
The student jazz band could finally play its lively tunes.
"Everyone was congested inside on Reyes," Dizon said. "We had no penetration. It was difficult."
But the Spartans found a way to decipher the zone, capitalizing on fastbreak opportunities and swinging the ball around to open space. Guards Clayton White (10 points) and Jeremy Hemsley (a freshman) didn't settle for Ayala's preferred slow pace, instead forcing a quicker tempo.
"It's funny. I want to say all of our leagues games have been similar to this," Dunn said. "We've struggled in the first half and then made runs in the second half. The games have all stayed close. We have never gotten into that comfort zone."
Reyes, whose right elbow was bandaged following a hard fall last week, finished with only nine points, nine rebounds and four blocks -- well below his season averages. That had no significance, though.
"At some point Chris is going to affect the game," Dunn said, acknowledging that his commodity earns extra attention. "Teams are doing a great job against him. But, you know, I'm really proud of him. He has two or three guys hanging on him every night. It's frustrating, but he did what he does best."
Josh Ramirez had a game-high 23 points for Ayala (14-6) but, after a dominant first half in which he scored as many points as the entire Spartans team, was limited by the gritty C.J. Hyland. Ayala gets a chance at redemption in the regular-season finale on Feb. 9, but by then Damien might already be the Sierra League champs.
"We have a lot of character," Dunn said. "I think our guys have great will and the belief to win."
Blair Angulo covers preps for ESPN Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.