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SUBURBAN LEAGUE BASKETBALL: Cerritos has its way with Norwalk as girls take early control of Suburban League

By Loren Kopff

With a combined 16 returning players on both the Cerritos and Norwalk girls basketball teams, including seven senior starters, it would only be fitting that two of the three squads expected to claim the Suburban League title would play a close game. For the first three quarters, that’s what was evident with the lead changing hands nine times and neither team leading by more than four points.

But the host Lady Dons went on a 14-4 run over the final 2:31 of the third quarter and into the first 2:03 of the fourth quarter as they pulled away from Norwalk 54-38 last Friday. Coupled with an easier win against La Mirada this past Monday, the Lady Dons improved to 11-6 overall and 3-0 in league action. Cerritos outscored the Lady Lancers 19-7 in the fourth quarter and didn’t have a double-digit lead until senior point guard Alyssa Movchan hit her lone three-pointer with 5:08 left in the game.

“If I had to say one thing, it’s just the sense of urgency,” said Cerritos first-year head coach Marcus Chinen of the fourth quarter. “That was the one thing that I think that they realized that they had to go in there and they had to play defense. This game was going to be decided on defense. Norwalk is a great team; they went after every single ball. They had a lot of second shot opportunities.”

Cerritos grabbed an early 8-4 lead before Norwalk closed out the first quarter with five straight points. Then the two combatants traded the lead five times in the second quarter with the largest lead being held at three points on two occasions by Cerritos. Senior forward J’nae Harrison was pacing Norwalk with 10 points and three rebounds in the first half while Cerritos had more of a balanced attack as senior point guard Taylor Hirata (six points, two rebounds, two steals), sophomore point guard Teresa Torres (six points, five rebounds) and sophomore center Ifeoma Okoli (five points, four rebounds) combined for all but five of Cerritos’ first half points.

“Those are the type of games that we want to be in,” Chinen said. “It’s a good learning experience too, for the future games. In case we get stuck in that, we know how to play that.”

Although Cerritos led 22-21 at the break, it could have been worse for the Lady Dons because while the hosts were eight of 36 from the field in the half, Norwalk was true on only one of 10 free throws during the same time.

“We’ve told them from day one, to even compete with [Cerritos] we know we have to do the little things,” said Norwalk head coach Emily Osongco. “And free throws are exactly that. Those are things that we work on, so we just have to keep working on it some more. Mentally, they just have to be focused and have that confidence to hit that shot.”

Harrison put the Lady Lancers up 27-26 with 3:07 left in the third quarter. That would be the last time the visitors would enjoy a lead because 36 seconds later, junior forward Tatiana Fominyam sank two free throws to put Cerritos in front to stay. Norwalk would shoot 33 percent from the field in the final stanza and grab six rebounds over the final eight minutes. Harrison led everyone with 16 points and grabbed seven rebounds.

“In the fourth quarter, we settled on shots and I think that hurt us again,” Osongco said. “Early on, with our free throw situation, I think we had every opportunity to play with [Cerritos].”

Hirata led Cerritos with 13 points and had three assists and three steals. It’s the fourth straight game in which she has led the team in scoring and eighth overall.

“She’s worked really hard and what I think is it’s her senior year and she’s a little bit more relaxed,” Chinen said. “She’ll look to pass first, then shoot later. But when she’s open, she has no problem on firing.”

But just as impressive has been the bench play Cerritos has been getting all season, including Torres, senior guards Allison David and Jolene Huang and freshmen guards Tracey Nakamura and Kalea Trias, just to name a few.

“That’s going to be key for later on in the season and into the postseason,” Chinen said. “We have to get the bench ready to go. When they’re ready to go, I think it makes it easier for the starters because…if they get into some type of foul trouble, I do have somebody who can actually come off the bench and pick up where they left off, and that’s the key.”

After Norwalk’s loss to Mayfair this past Monday, the Lady Lancers dropped to 8-9 overall, 1-2 in league as they prepare to host Bellflower today. Norwalk won the league title two seasons ago.

“I think both teams competed and I think we both accept the challenge and we want to be up there,” Osongco said. “We know it’s going to take a lot of hard work but at the same time, we have to capitalize on every possession.”

Cerritos, which hasn’t won the league since 2008, also got eight points from Fominyam, Movchan and sophomore point guard Cailey Vitug. Fominyam also added seven rebounds and four assists while Vitug chipped in with three steals. Okoli also had seven boards. The rematch with Norwalk will be Jan. 30 on Norwalk’s court.

“I like the chances right now but we cannot fall asleep against any team in this league because we never know,” Chinen said. “If we go cold and someone goes super hot…and you’ve seen it before. You’ve seen it before at a higher level in high school. You’ve seen it before at the college level and even in the pros.”

Following the contest, a close first quarter turned into a rout by halftime as Cerritos went on a 16-0 run in the second quarter and went on to crush the Lancers 63-44. The Dons missed just two field goals in the second quarter and limited the Lancers to only eight attempts in the stanza. In addition, the Lancers turned the ball over seven times in the second quarter after not having a miscue in the first quarter.

“We’ve been preaching it from day one, that if we can play defense, we can go from being a good team with talent to becoming a great team,” said Cerritos head coach Jonathan Watanabe. “Today was the best we’ve played of a full game of playing four quarters of good defense.”

Norwalk scored the first seven points of the second half before Cerritos quickly turned a nine-point lead into a 23-point advantage when junior guard Evan Leonard had one of his three steals and fed a pass to senior guard Henry Buycks who scored the last of his nine points of the game.

Leonard led Cerritos with 13 points, eight rebounds, three steals and two assists while Buycks and senior guard J.J. Rivera each added nine points. The Dons also got 26 points from half a dozen bench players. This past Monday, Cerritos snapped a six-game losing steal to La Mirada with a 78-69 victory to improve to 8-10 overall, 2-1 in league.

Norwalk (5-12, 0-3) was led by junior guard Keno Valdenor’s 11 points and nine rebounds) and sophomore forward Jordan Volpei’s 10 points.