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Gahr Girls Varsity Winter Classic: Cerritos gives JSerra all it can handle before falling in championship game

Cerritos sophomore Cailey Vitug passes the ball off in front of Mariah Lora of St. Pius-St. Matthias Academy in the semifinals of the Gahr Girls Varsity Winter Classic last Friday night. Vitug scored eight points but also had six assists, five rebounds and three steals in the game. PHOTO BY ARMANDO VARGAS

Cerritos sophomore Cailey Vitug passes the ball off in front of Mariah Lora of St. Pius-St. Matthias Academy in the semifinals of the Gahr Girls Varsity Winter Classic last Friday night. Vitug scored eight points but also had six assists, five rebounds and three steals in the game. PHOTO BY ARMANDO VARGAS

 

By Loren Kopff

First it was Mater Dei in pool play action of the South Coast Holiday Classic, followed by a meeting with Orange Lutheran in the Fountain Valley Tournament. The Cerritos girls basketball team thought it had seen enough of Trinity League teams before JSerra became the latest challenge for the Lady Dons in the championship game of the Gahr Girls Varsity Winter Classic last Saturday night.

Facing a starting lineup that featured three girls standing at least 5’ 10”, the Lady Dons gave it their best shot but succumbed to the Lions 56-43. The outcome was a stark contrast from the previous two games against Trinity League teams in which Cerritos managed 27 and 26 points respectively.

“Each time we played a Trinity League team, we learned from that game as far as how to play against a big team,” said Cerritos first-year head coach Marcus Chinen. “So hopefully this will help us going into the postseason. That’s what we’re looking for. We need to see bigger teams because when we get into the postseason, if we don’t see these big teams early, it hurts us in the long run.”

Cerritos took a 12-10 lead late in the first quarter on a basket from senior Taylor Hirata before JSerra went on an 8-0 run. But the Lady Dons refused to go away and following a three-pointer from Hirata, trailed 18-17 just 68 seconds into the second quarter. A basket from senior Alyssa Movchan with 5:30 remaining in the first half cut the JSerra lead to 23-21 before the Lions, ranked third in the California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section Division IV-AA poll, went on a 15-0 run that Cerritos would not recover from.

During that run, tournament most valuable player Megan House, who stands at 6’ 4”, scored six of her 10 first half points. The Lions also got a huge first half form Julia Ackerman (17 points) as Cerritos trailed 40-24 at the break.

“Their height did catch up with us a little bit in the long run,” Chinen said. “But other than that, I think [we] fought really well.”

Cerritos (7-6) tried to get back in the game early in the third quarter and got a big boost when junior Tatiana Fominyam scored a pair of baskets within the first minute, then sophomore Cailey Vitug’s basket made it 40-30. But Movchan, the team’s leading scorer this season, picked up her third foul with 6:52 left in the stanza and did not see action until the fourth quarter.

That’s when Cerritos had to change its game plan a bit. After attempting 16 three-pointers in the first half, the Lady Dons took one long distance shot in the third quarter.

“It makes a big difference because she actually spreads the court out,” Chinen said of not having Movchan on the court. “With her and Taylor out there, they spread the court out.”

While the Lions scored just 16 points in the second half, Cerritos was unable to get its deficit under nine points. In fact, Cerritos missed on its final eight shots of the game and did not get any points from its bench the entire game.

Fominyam led Cerritos with 16 points, eight rebounds and four steals while Hirata and Vitug each added 11 points. Hirata, who was named to the all-tournament team, also added four assists while Vitug posted a season-high in points, six of which came in the third quarter,

“Cailey was a big factor,” Chinen said. “In the third quarter, she was the one who stepped up. Then she kind of went flat in the fourth quarter. Once she went flat, it kind of stalled our offense. She’s going to be key for us.”

Cerritos was seeking its first tournament championship since 2002 when the Lady Dons won the Western Tournament after knocking off Corona Del Mar, Rancho Alamitos, Western and Loara. Before that, the last tournament championship came in 1997 when Cerritos took home the top spot in the Woodbridge Tournament after defeating Mater Dei, Woodbridge, Fountain Valley and San Clemente.

Since 2002, Cerritos has appeared in the finals of the Duarte Tournament (2005 and 2006) and the La Habra Tournament (2013). The Lady Dons, who beat St. Pius-St. Matthias Academy 56-35 in the semifinals last Friday night, will host Gahr on Saturday and visit Mayfair on Wednesday in the Suburban League opener.

“I think right now, we’re battle-ready for league, and that should lead us into the postseason,” Chinen said. “I think we should do well this year. I’m looking to try to match what we did last year, and then go further. Again, we have to stay healthy and to make sure that we’re smart and make all the right decisions on the court.”

Earlier last Saturday, host Gahr earned a 64-46 win over Birmingham to finish the tournament at 2-2 and claiming seventh place in the process. The Gladiators never trailed in the contest, building a nine-point lead twice in the first quarter.

“It was a good game for us,” said Gahr head coach David Garcia. “I’m glad we came back pretty strong after getting beat the way we got beat last night. The issue at the halfway point [of the season] is we have no post player. So, we’re a bunch of little girls chasing a bunch of big scorers. Luckily we have scorers. We can score and trade three’s for two’s. We’re going to be pretty decent but we have a long way to go, still.”

Gahr (8-5) was paced by junior Angelica Soltis and her sister, sophomore Alana Soltis, in the first quarter as both scored seven points and both connected on a three-pointer. In the second quarter, the Gladiators outscored the Patriots 13-4 as they built a 35-21 lead at the break.

A steal from Alana Soltis who dished the ball off to Angelica Soltis for a score increased the margin to 39-24 with 3:51 left in the third quarter. The stanza ended when Angelica Soltis nailed a three-pointer with 5.8 seconds left increasing the bulge to 47-32.

Angelica Soltis led everyone with 25 points on 10 of 18 shooting from the field. Sophomores Lauren Magano and Breanna Smith each added 12 points while Smith and Alana Soltis grabbed half a dozen rebounds. Smith also had five steals.

“People don’t realize that they play travel ball but they haven’t played high school ball yet,” Garcia said of the Soltis sisters. “For me to get them in their first year of [playing] high school is a blessing because they have a lot to give to the program and obviously, they are improving every game.”

Gahr was coming off a lackluster second half performance against J.W. North the previous night when they were blasted 75-38. The Gladiators trailed 28-26 with 2:04 left in the first half following a three-pointer from Angelica Soltis. J.W. North would then go on a 13-0 run that carried into the half of the third quarter. Gahr was outscored 24-5 in the third quarter and after a 12-0 run ended the stanza, J.W. North had a commanding 58-31 lead going into the fourth quarter.

Alana Soltis scored a team-high 18 points and pulled down five rebounds while Angelica Soltis added a season-low nine points, Gahr’s only game over the next seven days will be the one against Cerritos. Last season, Gahr edged Cerritos 60-59 on a last second basket.

“They’re a very much improved team and they go 14 deep on the bench,” Garcia said of his city rivals. “I understand that but at the end of the day, we still have to play the game. Win or lose, we’ll still learn from it. There’s nothing really about them that I see that’s special. At the end of the day, they’re going to have more players than [my team] and that full-court press might wear us out. They’re a very good squad.”

 

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