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By Loren Kopff
@LorenKopff on Twitter
The Cerritos High and Gahr High boys basketball teams concluded its own Varsity Tip-Off Tournament with a delicious appetizer. The city rivals hope that tonight’s main course will be even better when they hook up again in their annual non-league, non-tournament contest at Cerritos.
The Dons began the second half of last Saturday’s championship game on a 14-0 run and held on to knock off the Gladiators 83-76. It was a role reversal from last season when the two squads met in the finals of this tournament and Gahr turned a 39-30 halftime lead into an 81-42 victory, thanks to its own 14-0 run to begin the second half. But this time around, Cerritos went into the locker room with a slim 38-37 advantage.
Another key component to the Cerritos victory was senior guard Evan Leonard, who poured in a game-high 36 points. In last season’s title game, Leonard, who was injured, scored a mere seven points, his lowest output of last season. But he came back with a vengeance this time around and was 21 of 24 from the free throw line while grabbing a team-high 10 rebounds.
“I definitely wanted to come back stronger,” Leonard said. “Last year we lost by a whole lot of points and it was embarrassing. We thought we were ready but we weren’t ready, though. This year we wanted to take over and show that we’ve come a long way.”
“It’s a different team,” said Cerritos co-head coach Jonathan Watanabe. “We are a completely different team and I really like this group. You saw it all tonight. You saw the senior leadership; you saw the young guys coming in and giving us good minutes with some talent. It’s just a good group. They’re all very unselfish and winning is first.”
The Dons found themselves down 16-8 nearly midway through the first quarter after Gahr sophomore guard Kristopher Smith drained his second three-pointer of the stanza. Following a downtown basket from Gahr junior guard Marvin Bragg, which made the score 19-12, Cerritos (4-0) scored the next nine points with the final two coming off a steal and basket from Leonard, a University of California, Irvine signee.
Gahr (3-1) would again open up a seven-point lead 56 seconds into the second quarter before the Dons went on a 12-2 run to lead 33-30 after another steal and basket from Leonard with 4:02 left in the half. A long distance shot from junior guard Jason Fernandez put Cerritos up 38-37 at the break, a lead it would not surrender in the second half.
Leonard, the tournament’s most outstanding player, was just getting warmed up with 18 points in the half on four of seven shooting from the field and nine of 10 from the charity stripe. However, both teams had combined for 24 turnovers in the half and Bragg missed most of the second quarter after picking up his third foul with 5:35 left in the half.
“You have two good teams and that’s what it really comes down to,” Watanabe said. “You have a lot of talent on the court out here and it affects both sides of the ball. So when you have two teams that are playing good offense and good defense, the defense is going to create some turnovers. You just have to keep playing through them and not hang your heads on any of them.”
The game began to turn in Cerritos’ favor in the third quarter when senior guard Uchenna Nnoli scored a pair of baskets and senior guard Brandon Yoon and Leonard each added one within the first three and a half minutes as the Dons now led 46-37. Following a Gahr timeout, sophomore guard Jyvonnte Moore extended the lead before Bragg picked up his fourth foul less than four minutes remaining in the quarter.
“In the second half, we knew we had to play a real good half,” Leonard said. “Especially going into the fourth, we knew we had one quarter to get it done. We came out strong.”
Smith would end Gahr’s scoring drought at the 3:21 mark but seven seconds later, he too picked up his fourth foul. Still, the Gladiators were able to turn a 15-point deficit to a four-point margin early in the fourth quarter.
“We just stuck to the game plan,” Watanabe said. “Everyone did their job. I’m just proud of our guys; the effort that they put on the court and the resiliency, because Gahr made those runs and there are chances where you can fold or succumb under pressure.”
But Leonard would score 12 points in the final stanza, all but two coming from the line, and senior guard Jaylen Jones added eight points before fouling out late as the Dons were able to hang on for the victory. Nnoli scored 12 points and was named to the all-tournament team while senior guard Trenton Abundo, also named to the all-tournament team, added 11 points, eight rebounds and six assists. Moore came off the bench to pull down eight rebounds
“When you have a guy like Evan Leonard, it’s easy to play the game,” Watanabe said of the rest of his team. “It makes everything easier for you. And I think the guys finally understand that he’s going to get a lot of the attention. But that’s going to help them in their game.”
Cerritos had previously posted pool play victories over Warren High, 66-48, on Nov. 30, Bell High, 57-37 on Dec. 2 and Millikan High, 91-73, on Dec. 4.
Bragg (27 points, 12 rebounds) and Smith (19 points, four rebounds) paced the Gladiators, who previously knocked off West Torrance High, 84-54, Sunny Hills High, 73-64 and Western High, 66-38, on the same days as the Cerritos games. After tonight’s game, the city foes will then participate in the North Orange County Championships with Cerritos facing Ayala High and Paramount High on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively while Gahr will square off against Lakewood High on Monday and Martin Luther King High on Wednesday.
“We’re going to keep working,” Leonard said. “We’re going to keep working and we’re going to come back on Friday and just get it done.”
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