February 8, 2024
By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter
The only thing that stood in the way of a perfect 605 League slate for the Cerritos High boys and girls basketball teams was Whitney High, which has now been the most intense rivalry in the circuit. While the Cerritos boys had already locked up the league title and Whitney no worse than third place, the girls were playing for a league title last Thursday on Senior Night at Whitney.
Cerritos would take care of business on both sides, not only sweeping the league this season, but going undefeated in any league for the first time in the same season in at least 26 seasons. The boys had never been better than 10-2 in the Suburban League, which came in the 2014-2015 season, while the girls went 12-0 in the Mission Valley League in the 1997-1998 season and 12-0 in the Suburban League in the 2017-2018 campaign. Before this season, the best combined Suburban League record for both the boys and girls in the same season was 21-3 in 2014-2015. The best combined league record as members of the 605 League was 19-1 in 2019-2020.
The Cerritos girls held on for a 60-55 victory, ended the regular season 19-9 and swept the Wildcats for the first time. In the first round on Jan. 17, the Dons got past the ‘Cats 64-60, but Whitney still leads the overall series 7-6.
“That was one of our goals,” said Cerritos head coach Marcus Chinen. “It wasn’t actually [going] 10-0; our goal was to compete for a league title. The one thing [the players] kept saying was once we got through the first [meeting], let’s work really hard and see what happens on the last game because that was going to be a playoff environment.
“Personally, I think the game was on me,” said Whitney head coach Myron Jacobs. “We lost by five points; my biggest thing as a coach is anything around three to five points is on a coach and not on team. I thought we got killed on offensive rebounds. We knew they weren’t going to play us in zone because of the shooting that we had; they didn’t want us to get comfortable or they didn’t want to take a chance of being down like they were in the first half. So I thought they made a great adjustment by playing us in man.”
Cerritos was down 7-2 within the first 90 seconds before it went on an 8-0 run and never looked back. It was 20-12 after the first quarter and its lead was anywhere from five to nine points in the second quarter. While the halftime score was 31-22, the star of the game was senior Oneyka Nwanze, who already had 16 points and 13 rebounds, and was only heating up. She added another six points and six rebounds in the third quarter and finished the game with 25 boards and 24 points before fouling out with 3:17 left in the game.
At that point, the score was 52-48 and the Wildcats thought this was their chance to claw back and take the lead, knowing the tallest player on the Dons was out of the game. But Whitney went two of seven from the field down the stretch.
Junior Haylie Wang led Whitney (19-9 overall, 8-2 in league) with 23 points while senior Kylie Wang added 12 points and eight rebounds and freshman Alyssa So chipped in with 11 points.
“I think that game was a result of showing my girls, ‘hey, if we don’t follow instructions and you go rogue, this is what can happen’ because that was a very winnable game,” said Jacobs.
Senior Mia Rivera and junior Ambar Multani each scored eight points for the Dons with the latter also grabbing nine rebounds. Cerritos outrebounded Whitney 47-18 and never let the hosts get closer than a point in the second half.
“Late in the third quarter, I don’t know if they were tired or what not,” said Chinen. “We had a couple of key turnovers there, so Whitney came firing back. We had a couple of missed assignments and a couple of their players hit some key shots to bring them closer to us. But our girls sat in there and in their minds, they weren’t going to let them come back into it.”
Following the game, the boys were in for a bigger battle than when the teams met on Jan. 17, which was a 70-31 contest. This time around, the Dons held a slim 29-28 lead at the half, never leading by more than six points, before pulling away late in the third quarter for a 59-47 win. Cerritos (17-10, 10-0) has now won all 15 games in the series. However, longtime Cerritos head coach Jonathan Watanabe gave high praise to Whitney as the 12-point win was tied for the closest margin of victory.
“When it came down to it, they made shots,” said Cerritos head coach Jonathan Watanabe. “[Whitney junior] Morgan [Marks] was playing like Morgan, and if he’s healthy, they’re going to be a team to watch. We witnessed firsthand what that’s like and you’re trying to defend him, then they’re knocking down all their shots and they’re running down the shot clock. It was a great game. The scariest part about that is they’re in our division and next year…they only have two seniors [this year] and one of them was hurt in this game.”
Marks was the high scorer in the game with 19 points and had five steals. But the Wildcats (15-10, 6-4) were without the services of senior Sakeef Sekender, sidelined with an ankle injury, and junior Alex Cheng picked up two quick fouls in three seconds late in the third quarter, following by an immediate technical foul for his fifth personal infraction. At that point, Whitney was trailing by five points and would not get closer than four points.
“That whole sequence to me was obviously detrimental as far as our situation because we only went about six deep at that point, then we had to go seven,” said Whitney first-year head coach Nasir Akmal. “That’s always going to be something in the closer games. Alex has been our best defender the whole season. His blocks and just his presence…he’s an undersized big and he guards the guards, and he guards bigs. What he brings to our team is irreplaceable.”
“He’s a really solid player,” said Watanabe of Sekender. “But the matchup for us in particular made it more difficult because they were quicker. When [freshman] Jezreel [Dela Cruz] started, and they had three guards now that are super quick and hard to stay in front of, it was probably a more difficult matchup for us.”
Marks converted a three-point play with 5:32 left in the game but wouldn’t get another field goal until almost two minutes later. By then, it was a nine-point Cerritos lead. Junior Christian Carreon added 11 points and three rebounds and senior Joseph Whittaker pitched in with eight points and four boards for the Wildcats, who collected 14 rebounds. Cerritos was led by seniors Tobenna Ozoagu (12 points, six assists) and Osinachi Agaranna (11 points, seven rebounds) and junior Benson Cho (10 points, eight rebounds).
“Our guys still fought,” said Akmal. “It wasn’t like the guys suddenly just folded. We still were in the game, and we still fought in the fourth.”
Cerritos ranked third in the CIF-Southern Section Division 4AA bracket defeated Jurupa Valley High 76-46 this past Wednesday and will travel to Yucca Valley High on Friday while Whitney fell to Milken Community, ranked eighth in the division, 61-50 this past Wednesday.
In first round boys basketball action this past Wednesday, Artesia High (18-10) lost to Camarillo High 53-36 in Division 3AA, Gahr High was eliminated by Huntington Beach High 58-52 in Division 3A and Valley Christian High (16-13) fell to Saugus High 64-52 in Division 2AA.
In the Gahr game, the Gladiators rallied from an early 7-2 hole to reel off 13 straight points with under a minute left in the first quarter. The Gladiators (18-9) either led or was tied until late in the third quarter but the Oilers went on a 15-0 run of their own to take a 44-37 advantage within the first minute of the fourth quarter. Gahr was unable to get its deficit under four points for the final six minutes of the game. Senior Miles Merchant led the Gladiators with 18 points while junior Uchenna Okoli added a dozen points.