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Defense carries Artesia to second tournament championship of season

By Loren Kopff

Artesia High School (Lakewood, California) Logo

Artesia High School (Lakewood, California) Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


DOWNEY-During a timeout with 6.3 seconds remaining in the championship game of the 20th annual Calvary Chapel Downey Grizzly Classic and up by two points, Artesia junior Dontae Smith asked for one thing. Smith, the team’s best defender, asked Artesia head coach Ray Walker if he could guard El Rancho’s Arturo Gomez in anticipation for a final shot that would send the game into overtime or give El Rancho a come from behind victory.

Sure enough, Gomez did attempt a three-pointer from the right corner at the buzzer, only to see the shot sail behind the backboard. It enabled the Pioneers to escape with a 48-46 victory last Saturday night, the second time in three weeks the team has won a preseason tournament.

Artesia (10-2) led only once in the first 21:35 of the game, a one-point lead early in the second quarter. But a steal and basket from Smith put the Pioneers up 37-36 late in the third quarter. That was part of an 11-0 run and with 6:37 left in the game, Artesia had forged back to take a 42-36 lead. In fact, Artesia held the Dons scoreless for 6:13.

“Our defense dictates our offense a lot of the times,” Walker said. “So when we play good on the defensive end, it helps us gets easier baskets because we don’t have great offensive players.”

But as hot as Artesia was on the offensive end, it quickly went cold in the fourth quarter, hitting only one field goal over the final six minutes of the contest. El Rancho’s Dimitric Lozano tied the game at 44-44 with a pair of free throws with 1:44 left to play. But sophomore Duryea Harris put Artesia in front a little over a minute later with two free throws only to see Lozano tie the game with 26.7 ticks left.

The game-winner came with 10 seconds remaining when senior Korey Joseph, the tournament’s most valuable player scored off a pass from junior Akil Williams. Joseph went four of five from the field and scored eight points, all in the second half.

“That happens sometimes,” Walker said of the scoreless stretch. “That’s why we tell them we have to make sure we’re always defending so it gives you a chance to still win a game, even when you’re not playing well offensively. We had a lot of empty possessions. I think sometimes we forget, as all teams probably do, how we were able to score.”

El Rancho scored the first seven points of the game but the Pioneers, who didn’t shoot well in the first half (19 percent) managed to cut the deficit to two points entering the second quarter. However, Artesia came out strong in the second half with three straight baskets within the first two minutes.

Harris, who was named to the all-tournament team, came off the bench to lead the Pioneers with a career-high 12 points and three steals. It was the first time he had scored more than six points in any game this season.

“He’s really progressed,” Walker said. “He pretty much has a green light to get to the basket because he’s a very good athlete and has some really good quickness. But as a sophomore, he defers a lot and we would rather he not defer so much because then it opens up other things for other players.”

Smith also scored eight points and grabbed six rebounds while senior Jon Campbell, another all-tournament member, also pulled down half a dozen boards.

The narrow win was nothing new for the Pioneers, who have already exceeded last season’s win total of nine games. Artesia began the tournament with a 50-42 win over Crean Lutheran last Tuesday, followed by a 49-46 win over Middle College on Smith’s buzzer-beating three-pointer and a 48-34 victory over Schurr. In fact, of the 10 victories, four have come by six points or less.

“The competition for us in these tournaments has been great,” Walker said. “We’re coming along. The players have bought in to working hard. The schedule is favorable for us, and competitive for us.”

Artesia, which has not had a winning record since winning a California Interscholastic Federation state championship to end the 2006-2007 season, is off until Jan. 3 when it hosts Calvary Chapel Downey.

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