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By Loren Kopff
HUNTINGTON BEACH-When the Cerritos High girls basketball team arrived at Marina High for its consolation championship game in the Larry Doyle/Dan Wiley Orange County Tournament of Champions against the host school, head coach Marcus Chinen told his team there needed to be a sense of urgency. As it turned out, the team, especially its top three returning players, followed up on the message in a big way.
Junior Ifeoma Okoli had a career-high 26 points with six rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks as Cerritos built a 32-point lead in the third quarter and held on for a 69-57 win over the Vikings this past Wednesday. Senior Tatiana Fominyam scored 15 points, grabbed nine rebounds, had five steals and four assists while junior Cailey Vitug chipped in with 14 points, seven assists, two rebounds and two steals as the Lady Dons won the final three games of the tournament.
“There has to be some kind of sense of urgency out there,” Chinen said. “For some reason, I don’t know why this year, nerves hit them right away. Once the nerves get out, they start playing their type of game. Today, we got out of the gate really fast and I think that’s what helped us.”
Cerritos (6-7 overall) trailed by four points three minutes into the game but ended the first quarter on a 16-5 run and never looked back. Okoli was four of five from the field in the quarter and scored eight points while Vitug, coming off the bench, had four assists and two steals in the first eight minutes. But another key component of the game that aided Cerritos was in its ball handling skills. Against Cypress High in the first game of the tournament last Saturday, Cerritos had 12 turnovers in the first half. Against Valencia High this past Tuesday, the Lady Dons turned the ball over 12 times in the first half. But against Marina, Cerritos had half a dozen miscues before halftime while taking the ball away nine times.
“If we play our game and get out quick, jump to the ball and active from the start, that’s the outcome we’re going to get,” Chinen said. “In some of the games, I have to admit we were flat; really, really flat. It took us awhile to get going.”
The Vikings got as close as six points with 4:47 left in the first half. But Cerritos reeled off four quick baskets, three coming from Okoli, in less than two minutes. By halftime, the defending Suburban League champions were sitting pretty with a 38-21 advantage, shooting 50 percent from the field and getting 18 points from Okoli.
The start to the second half was even bigger as the Lady Dons went on a 16-1 run before Jomira Velasquez scored Marina’s first two-pointer of the half. In fact, Velasquez scored 25 of her game-high 28 points in the second half as she tried to single handily bring the Vikings back in the game.
But in the end, it was too much of Fominyam, Okoli and Vitug. Fominyam was perfect on her four field goals of the third quarter while pulling down three rebounds and having two steals in the stanza. Okoli also had eight points in the third quarter while Vitug, in just her fifth game of the season, added her final two assists in the quarter.
Okoli was 12 of 18 from the field and has scored at least 10 points in 10 of the 13 games played thus far. She scored 12 points on 50 percent shooting from the field against Cypress but was held to three points against Valencia despite grabbing 11 rebounds and blocking five shots.
“I did talk to her yesterday in regards to being a little more aggressive,” Chinen said. “I think she turned it around today. We ask [our players] what is really important to you, [league] MVP or a just a [league] title. I was telling them that a MVP of the league is going to take just more than five blocks and nine points. You might have to score double digits and have the five blocks in order to be considered of being a league MVP. But every single one of the girls said they’ll take a league championship over a league MVP.”
Six other players combined for the remaining 14 points. The Lady Dons began the tournament with a 45-44 loss to Cypress as a late rally fell short. Fominyam scored 11 points, pulled down 16 boards, had six steals and four assists while Vitug added 14 points on five of eight shooting from the field. This past Monday, Cerritos thrashed Rivera High 67-7 behind 15 points from Fominyam and a career-high 12 points from junior Teresa Torres. Cerritos then outscored Valencia 16-7 in the fourth quarter to come away with a 48-37 victory. Fominyam led the Lady Dons with 15 points, 12 rebounds, six steals and five blocks.
“We’re trying to see who actually could play at the end of the game,” Chinen said. “We knew we were going to pressure them and us as coaches, this is the last tune-up game before league. So we really have to see who can and who can’t play at the end of games. Right now we kind of figured out who we need in there in case someone happens to foul out or we have an injury.”
The Lady Dons have spent the month of December playing tough completion from Orange County schools, thus making its 6-7 record not indicative of the damage the team can do in league. Cerritos lost its first three games of the season against Tesoro High (by 10 points), Trabuco Hills High (by 11 points) and Aliso Niguel High in the South Coast Holiday Classic. The team also lost a five-point decision to Lakewood High in the final game of the Fountain Valley Tournament. Cerritos will open up league play on Wednesday at home against John Glenn High.
“In the first two tournaments, I wouldn’t want to say it was a wake-up call,” Chinen said. “But in the first two tournaments, it was a chance to see and get used to each other.”
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