Yes, the Westlake junior would be matched up at times with Millers guard Justin Jenifer, who held the type of Division I offers that Espeleta coveted. Yes, the Wolverines were considered a vast underdog against the defending state champions. But Mouton exhorted his players to compete in a manner that would make both of those facts obsolete.
Mouton’s message sparked Espeleta to a career-high 27 points and the rest of the Wolverines followed in their point guard’s footsteps to pull off a 71-68 upset of Milford Mill at Comcast Center. The Wolverines advance to their first state final in school history and will face City, a 56-36 winner over Urbana in the earlier semifinal, in Saturday’s 5 p.m. title game.
“I took it as a challenge, and I just wanted to go right at him and lead the team,” said Espeleta, who shot 8 for 11 from the field with three three-pointers.
Initially, the Millers were the more aggressive team, attacking the basket with quick moves to the rim to jump to a 15-6 lead. But Espeleta helped Westlake surge back into contention with seven second-quarter points, and when Chris Craft turned one of his 11 rebounds into a put-back, the Wolverines entered halftime with the score knotted at 29.
“When we came out of the locker room, we just said we were going to pick it up on defense,” Westlake guard Desi Wiseman said. “Just play together on offense and share the ball.”
Behind sound ball rotation and spacing along the perimeter, Westlake knocked down four three-pointers in the third quarter and built its first lead behind an 11-0 run.
On defense, Westlake showed several different looks, including a box-and-one, to slow down Jenifer (23 points) and force his supporting cast to beat the Wolverines.
“I knew Jenifer was going to get his points, but he had to earn them,” Mouton said. “And I knew they were going to attack us because that’s just the way we play. But we had to attack them too.”
With the Wolverines up by eight points midway through the fourth quarter, the Millers clawed their way back behind steals created by pressure defense and second-chance rebounds. Jenifer scored 10 fourth-quarter points and Allen Costley converted a three-point play to put the Millers back up 64-63 with less than two minutes to play.
Reverting back to the play that first put them ahead, Westlake swung the ball before finding Gabriel Jarvis in the corner for the go-ahead three-pointer, sealing the Wolverines’ spot in the state championship game.