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Cerritos snaps century-long losing streak to Mayfair in overtime thriller

By Loren Kopff

 

When the Cerritos boys basketball team joined the Suburban League at the beginning of the 1998-1999 season, it was quickly greeted by powerhouse teams like Artesia and Mayfair. The Dons would lose 36 straight games to those two schools before finally beating Artesia in 2008.

But the Dons still had a hard time notching a victory over Mayfair…until this past Monday night. Cerritos snapped a 33-game losing streak to the Monsoons with an 86-77 overtime victory that kept the Dons still alive for a Suburban League championship. Of those 33 straight losses, Cerritos head coach Jonathan Watanabe has been a part of 27 of them and was probably the happiest person inside the Cerritos gymnasium once the buzzer sounded to end the game.

“I don’t know if we were going to get there,” Watanabe said of breaking that losing streak. “But 1-27 is better than 0-28. I’ll take it; it’s a big one. It’s a big one for our program.”

The game featured two of the best players not only in the league, but in the California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section in Cerritos junior guard Evan Leonard and Mayfair senior Kendall Small. And the two did not disappoint at all. Leonard poured in a career-high 42 points while Small paced the Monsoons with 38 points.

“I just wanted to come in and just take control of the game,” Leonard said. “I didn’t want to let the game come to me. We knew they had Kendall Small and we just tried to double-team and triple-team him and shut him down.”

After trailing throughout most of the first half, including 7-0 right out of the gates, the Dons stormed back in the third quarter and took a 47-46 lead late in the stanza on a Leonard steal and dunk. That was part of a 10-0 run and the Dons would increase their lead to eight points (66-58) when senior guard Henry Buycks scored with 3:11 left in regulation.

However, Cerritos would get just one more field goal in regulation and Small took matters into his hands. Small was six of seven from the free throw line and scored 12 points in the final 2:43 of regulation including the tying basket with 46.8 seconds left. Small also missed a potential fadeaway game-winner at the buzzer.

“He’s unbelievable, and he’s just turned it up another notch,” Watanabe said. “We watched him at La Mirada [on Jan. 23] and his second half performance at La Mirada just bringing them back and the way he played tonight…he’s just at another level. I’m just glad we have someone to match him.”

“He’s really quick off the dribble,” Leonard said. “So, you just have to get as low as he is and try to stay low and hope you have a lot of help behind you.”

A free throw from Small six seconds into overtime gave Mayfair its first lead in almost 11 minutes but Leonard responded 14 seconds later with a three-pointer that bounced off the rim. A Damo Moses basket tied the game but the Dons took the lead for good when Leonard found junior guard Brandon Yoon open at the right wing where he knocked down his only basket of the game. Leonard and Yoon then combined to sink eight straight free throws to seal the win.

Just before the basket, Leonard was called for an offensive charge but Cerritos got the ball back after Yoon got a rebound off a Small miss.

“I’m impressed with all of the other things,” Watanabe said of Leonard. “He distributes the pass to Brandon Yoon to get the assist. He had the other one that would have been the go-ahead if [the referees] didn’t call the charge. But making the right decisions…it’s impressive to score a lot of points but it’s even more impressive to become a great player and make your teammates better.”

While most of the focus may have been on Leonard, who was nine of 24 from the field with six three-pointers, and Buycks (13 points, six rebounds, two blocks), the Dons got key contributions from their bench, including Yoon (nine points, four rebounds), junior guard Trenton Abundo (six points) and junior guard Uchenna Nnoli (three points).

 “We expect it now,” Watanabe said. “The secret’s out. Brandon Yoon, Trenton Abundo, Uchenna Nnoli all came out and contributed tonight. People know about Henry, Evan and J.J. but some of these other guys are big. We had to make sure it was a full team effort.”

Cerritos hasn’t won a Suburban League title since leaving the Mission Valley League after the 1997-1998 season and has finished as high as second place twice this century (2010 and 2011). The Dons, who were coming off a 51-48 overtime win at Norwalk last Friday night behind Leonard’s 23 points, held on to edge Artesia 73-66 this past Wednesday after leading by 20 points midway through the third quarter. Buycks led everyone with 18 points and eight rebounds while Leonard added 14 points, eight rebounds and seven steals. Cerritos (14-11 overall, 8-2 in league) will visit Bellflower on Tuesday before hosting last place John Glenn on Thursday.

“I really think our game on Friday [at Norwalk] benefited us tonight,” Watanabe said. “Having to have that close one on Friday…we kind of expected it going into Norwalk. We didn’t want to have that situation. But I definitely think those situations throughout the season has helped us.

“Our league is strong,” Watanabe later added. “You can’t come in and think that you’re just going to coast through. If you do, it’s going to be a tight ball game because we have some great coaches in our league. I think that’s what it really comes down to. We have coaches in our league that get the most out their players.”

“We were just trying to go undefeated,” Leonard said. “We were coming in with a really good team and a lot of people didn’t believe in us. So we just had to show that we can play with these guys. We just had to show that things are changing at Cerritos.”

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