By Loren Kopff
LOS ANGELES-The Los Angeles Clippers hosted Sacramento last Friday night but some seven hours earlier, the Cerritos boys basketball team took to the Staples Center court in what head coach Jonathan Watanabe called a “once in a lifetime experience”. Even though the Dons fell to Downey 64-49, the chance of playing on such a big stage should serve as some motivation to play for a California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section championship in a smaller arena, but still much bigger than the Cerritos High gymnasium.
Through the help of the Los Angeles Clippers and Downey head coach Larry Shelton, the Dons were able to play the Vikings in both a varsity and junior varsity game shortly after Sacramento practiced and hours before an NBA game.
“I don’t know if we’ll be able to do it again,” Watanabe said. “I just want to thank Larry Shelton for giving us the opportunity to play here. He set all of this up and told us what was going to go on. I just hope our kids enjoyed it. You can’t match this experience, so if we were to make it to the finals and play at the Anaheim Convention Center, that’s going to look like a regular gym compared to this.”
About four years ago, the Clippers asked Shelton if he wanted to have his team either play a non-league game at the Staples Center or conduct some type of practice as a fundraiser for both teams. Past Downey opponents who have played at the Staples Center have been St. John Bosco, Downey Calvary Chapel and Lakewood. Norwalk and Downey were scheduled last season but didn’t play in downtown Los Angeles due to the NBA lockout.
As for the game itself, Cerritos never led or tied and fell behind 24-12 after the first quarter as the Vikings scored six points off of turnovers in the stanza. Down by eight points, senior guard Ruben Cuatrona hit a three-pointer followed by a two-pointer from junior guard Kelechi Ukoha in a span of 33 seconds. But the Vikings went on a 14-5 run and Cerritos would not get closer than eight points the rest of the way.
Cerritos shot 41 percent from the field in the first half and turned the ball over eight times before halftime but couldn’t recover from Downey’s 60 percent shooting in the first quarter alone.
“I think it affected a few of them,” Watanabe said of new surroundings behind the baskets. “But if you’re picking up a target as the rim, then it shouldn’t be a problem. But it’s definitely different playing here, even from a coaching standpoint, having the court be so long and so much wider.”
Both teams combined for 19 points in the third quarter including a buzzer-beater from sophomore guard Jonathan Rivera that was eight feet behind the NBA three-point line. That made the score 43-32 and a steal and basket from senior forward Steven Awada to begin the fourth quarter cut the Downey lead to nine points. But the Dons scored just once over the next 3:34 and turned the ball over eight times in the final quarter. Cerritos also had 26 rebounds but just two on the offensive end.
“We needed to get back on defense, take care of the ball and box out more,” Watanabe said. “They got quite a few offensive rebounds. There are definitely some things we need to work on.”
Freshman guard Evan Leonard led Cerritos with 12 points while senior guard Dylan Hirata added 10 points. Senior guard Elijah Leonard grabbed 11 rebounds but the Dons had no answer to Downey’s Dakari Archer, who they saw the previous night against Norwalk. Archer led everyone with 22 points against Cerritos after scoring eight points less than 24 hours ago. Sal Carlos and Jeraun Richards added 15 and 13 points respectively after combining for 36 points against Norwalk.
“Norwalk went zone, so we didn’t get anything out of the scouting report at all,” Watanabe said. “We knew Dakari was good and we wanted to play him straight up just to see how our guards would react.”
Cerritos played Canada-based GP Vanier in the first round of the Mt. Carmel Tournament this past Wednesday and will finish up its non-league slate on Saturday in San Diego. Cerritos will visit Norwalk on Wednesday in the Suburban League opener.
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