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GIRLS BASKETBALL: Hirata’s three-pointer ices Cerritos’ victory over Gahr

By Loren Kopff

The Cerritos-Gahr boys basketball city rivalry has been intense since 1999 but now, the two girls’ squads are trying to show that their rivalry, albeit a short one, can match that same intensity. Cerritos senior point guard Taylor Hirata sank her fourth three-pointer of the game with exactly one minute left in the game and the Lady Dons sank five free throws down the stretch to knock off the Gladiators 59-54 last Saturday night.

The game marked only the fifth time since 1999 that the cross-town rivals on the girls side have met in the regular season. Last season, Gahr’s Cynthia Agu hit the game-winning basket at the buzzer to edge the Lady Dons 60-59. Before that, Cerritos had won two of the first three meetings.

“It’s going to be a good rivalry,” said Cerritos first-year head coach Marcus Chinen. “I think after we graduate these seniors, it’s just going to regenerate the Gahr-Cerritos rivalry wherever it’s played, if it’s in a tournament, whether if it’s here or over there. They’re a very good team; a very patient team. They have some good shooters.”

“It was a good game and it is a little rivalry and that’s what it’s all about,” said Gahr head coach David Garcia. “I like coming here and they like coming to Gahr. They have some players who I like. I have some players who transferred out of here and went to Gahr for whatever reason. But at the end of night, we’ll both learn from this game, win or lose, and move on.”

Midway through the fourth quarter, Gahr took its second lead of the game when senior forward Leah Grigsby scored her only points of the quarter to put Gahr up 48-47. It was the end of a 14-4 run for the Gladiators, which had trailed by as many as 14 points early in the third quarter.

However, junior forward Tatiana Fominyam’s basket a minute and a half later gave Cerritos (8-6) the lead for good. Hirata then increased the margin to three points and after Gahr sophomore guard Alana Soltis hit a free throw, Hirata iced the game with her three-pointer off a pass from sophomore point guard Cailey Vitug.

“I feel like there’s more of a rivalry because of the [Soltis] sisters who transferred,” Hirata said. “It gave us more of a push to beat them this year and also because they beat us last year.”

Both teams were off and running in the first quarter and combined for half a dozen three-pointers as Cerritos built a 17-9 lead late in the stanza on a three-pointer from Vitug.

Gahr (8-6) tried to stay within striking range of the hosts throughout the first half, getting as close as five points with 5:23 left in the half. But Hirata nailed a downtown shot with 17.2 seconds left to put the Lady Dons up 33-22 at the break. Then Cerritos opened the second half with three straight points. It wasn’t until Grigsby grabbed an offensive rebound and immediately scored that started Gahr’s run with 2:53 left in the third quarter. Over the next 6:49, Gahr went on a 19-7 run to take that brief lead.

“I felt like how we let them regain the lead gave us a sense of urgency and we just had to push through and finish the game to prepare for league,” Hirata said.

Grigsby was making her return to the court in about a month after being sidelined with a bruised kneecap. She came off the bench to grab 19 rebounds, score seven points and have three steals. She was slated to be in the starting lineup before her injury.

“She hasn’t played in over a month because of her injury, but she’s a big difference,” Garcia said. “She’s my rebounder and if we get her to get a rebound and we make good plays going down the court, we get a shot.”

“She went after every single ball,” Chinen said. “She was very aggressive and I think [she] is a game changer for them. She changed it up a little bit, especially when [sophomore center] Ifeoma [Okoli] got into foul trouble and we had to sit Ifeoma. Sometimes she found herself against a guard and made it easier for her to rebound.”

Hirata and Vitug each led Cerritos with 16 points and for Vitug, it was a career-high. Fominyam added 12 points and as many rebounds along with six steals. As a team, Cerritos had 38 rebounds and 17 steals. The Lady Dons were also eight of 20 from three-point range.

“We match up well because they have size, too,” Chinen said. “They look small on paper but they’re not small. They can post up our guards because of the two to three inch height difference. They rebound well, they shot the ball well and they’re a very good team.”

Gahr was led by junior forward Angelica Soltis, who scored a game-high 22 points and was five of nine from beyond the arc. She had now scored at least 20 points in five games and has reached double figures in 13 of Gahr’s 14 games thus far. She and her sister are transfers from Cerritos.

“She’s a lefty, so we knew we had to guard her and push her right,” Hirata said of Angelica Soltis. “She’s also a shooter; that’s what she does.”

In last season’s game at Gahr, the Gladiators led 25-19 at halftime before Cerritos opened the second half on a 9-2 run. Gahr would later go on a 13-0 scoring spree before the Lady Dons countered with an 11-0 run. Before last season, the two teams split a pair of Gahr Tournament meetings in 2010 and way back in 2002. Cerritos also posted a 71-35 win on Jan. 9, 1999.

Gahr will face Valencia at Long Beach City College on Saturday before opening San Gabriel Valley League action at Warren on Wednesday while Cerritos began Suburban League play at Mayfair this past Wednesday and will host Norwalk today. Those two opponents figure to be the closest competition for the Lady Dons this season. Cerritos will then host La Mirada on Monday and Bellflower on Wednesday.

“I’m ready for league and I know they’re excited and ready to start league,” Chinen said.

“Playing those Trinity League teams [in non league] is going to help us against Mayfair and Norwalk because we already know how to play bigger teams, as opposed to last year when we really didn’t play hard teams as hard as we did this year,” Hirata said.