REGION — The last time Ben Perez and Mikey Howell were together on a basketball court, they were shedding tears at Jenny Craig Pavilion as their team, San Marcos High, suffered a 63-57 loss to Morse in the CIF Division 1 Championship game in 2014.
Five years later, the former teammates aren’t on the same court — but share a major hoops accomplishment that has them both all smiles.
They’re going to the Dance.
Perez, a wiry 6-4 guard known for his shooting prowess, is a redshirt junior at Iona College, a Division 1 college in New Rochelle, New York.
Howell, a point guard known for his dazzling court vision, is a redshirt sophomore at Division 2 UC San Diego. Both teams advanced to the NCAA tournament in their respective divisions.
Iona advanced to the Big Dance by defeating Monmouth, 81-60, to win the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament championship.
UC San Diego advanced to the NCAA Division II tournament by defeating Cal Poly Pomona in the California Community College Association’s tournament championship game.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Perez, who graduated from San Marcos in 2014 and has taken what could be described as a circuitous path to arrive in the NCAA tournament. “I’ve been blessed to get a ring at SDSU and play in the NIT as well as win a national championship at the junior college level, but the one thing I felt like I needed to accomplish was make it to the tournament and play on that stage so I’m extremely excited for that opportunity.”
Howell, a 2016 San Marcos graduate, echoed his former teammate’s sentiments.
“Growing up playing ball, you watch March Madness every year and it was a surreal experience being able to actually play in those big games,” Howell said this week, after the Tritons lost Saturday in the round of 32 to eventual Western Region champion Point Loma Nazarene University.
“Playing for Dante (Carey, head coach at San Marcos), I was able to learn and understand the game from a highly experienced coach who played the same position as me in college,” Howell continued. “He always challenged us to push ourselves and our team.
“I just think it’s amazing that two young men from San Marcos get to play at the highest level in March. The sky is the limit for us in the future,” Howell said.
But the path here for both Perez and Howell wasn’t an easy one, as both overcame adversity to make it to this point.
Perez first attended Air Force Prep after graduating from San Marcos, and earned a walk-on position at San Diego State University in 2015-2016.
He played 10 minutes per game and played in 19 of the team’s first 21 games, a solid amount of playing time for a non-scholarship player. The team won the Mountain West Conference regular season title, but didn’t make the NCAA tournament after losing in the conference tournament.
But Perez walked away from the team after one season, wanting more from his basketball career. After not playing during the 2016-2017 season, Perez moved to Texas to attend South Plains College, a nationally ranked junior college.
During his lone season with the Texans, Perez started and helped lead the team to the National Junior College Athletics Association Division 1 Championship, averaging nearly 10 points and shooting 41.7 percent from three-point range.
Shortly after the championship, Perez signed with Iona, which has had a history of making it to the NCAA tournament, advancing to the dance six of the past nine years.
Perez said that winning the MAAC title game validated his path to this point.
“It really makes it feel like it was all worth it,” Perez said. “You know this game leads everyone on different paths and if I told you my college career has played out exactly how I planned I’d be lying, but coming to Iona and finding a home here makes it all worth it.
“There were times that I would question if basketball was still for me and just being able to push through those doubts along the way makes me proud that I never gave up on my dream and that I knew my own worth and didn’t settle for being a walk-on,” Perez said.
After Perez graduated from San Marcos, Howell became one of the team’s top players, earning interest from several Division 1 programs.
But his career took a fortuitous turn during the spring of 2015, when he suffered a knee injury during a travel basketball game.
Originally it was believed to be a sprain, and Howell continued to play through it, but by July, his knee had gotten worse.
A MRI revealed that the 6-3 point guard had suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament, which would sideline him for his entire senior year.
Almost all of the colleges who were recruiting Howell backed away, except for one: UC San Diego, and head coach Eric Olen. The Tritons shortly after signing Howell announced they would be transitioning to Division 1 beginning in the 2020-2021 season.
Howell signed with UC San Diego, and redshirted his freshman year to rehabilitate his knee.
Howell said that the redshirt year changed everything for him.
“I think suffering such a devastating injury only helped me as a player,” Howell said. “At first I thought it was the worst thing ever, but in reality it helped my game in other aspects such as fundamentals and shooting the ball.
The work paid off this season, his second on the court, as he became the Tritons starting point guard and led the team with 108 assists.
“I can now say all the rehab and redshirt year only made me stronger and hungrier to become a better player,” Howell said.
Now that Howell’s season is over, he said he will get right back in the gym, but plans on watching his former teammate play this week.
Iona, which is seeded 16th in the Midwest Region of the NCAA tournament, plays top-seeded North Carolina at 9:30 p.m. Friday.
Perez said he’s ready for the challenge.
“I’ve been an underdog my entire life, so why should it be any different,” he said.