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By Loren Kopff

@LorenKopff on Twitter

The Gahr High boys basketball team may have lost to Cerritos High in the championship game of the city rival’s co-hosted tournament on Dec. 5. But the word revenge wasn’t even a topic of conversation for the Gladiators and head coach Ricky Roper last week.

Instead, the Gladiators let their defensive play speak for itself last Friday night when the two met again for their annual tussle for city bragging rights. This time, Gahr had 17 steals, never trailed in the contest and received a 21-poit performance from junior Marvin Bragg in a 76-66 victory. The win left both teams at 5-1 overall at the beginning of the week.

“We just have to play better than what we’re playing,” Roper said. “We were not happy with how we were playing.”

“Every day we’ve just worked hard,” Bragg said. “We’re not just working for this opponent; we’re also working for the future games.”

The Gladiators raced to an 18-6 lead in the first quarter after a three-pointer from sophomore Jarrel King. It would be one of a pair of 12-point leads in the first half by the visitors. But the Dons rallied back and went on a 15-4 run thanks to five points each from senior Evan Leonard and junior Timothy En.

But that momentum swing was halted when sophomore Justan Lucas converted on a three-point play with 3.8 seconds left in the opening quarter. Then Gahr began the second quarter on a 9-2 run to lead by 12 points again nearly midway through the stanza. Cerritos tried to get back in the game but whenever it did, the Gladiators had an answer.

If it wasn’t a pair of three-pointers from senior Evan Anderson, then it was a steal and subsequent three-point play from junior Tony Crosby which made it a 39-31 affair with 1:46 remaining in the half.

Bragg had 12 points in the half but the difference between this meeting and the one six days prior, as far as he was concerned, was that he was able to say in the game. In the aforementioned championship game, Bragg scored 27 points but picked up three fouls in the first half and his fourth midway through the third quarter. Last Friday, he didn’t pick up a foul until the fourth quarter.

“Last game they trapped me, so I had to find the open man; find my teammates and open the game up,” Bragg said.

“He did a better job staying on the court,” Roper said. “He did everything. He scored, he got rebounds, he played defense.”

Cerritos made another attempt to get back in the game and began the second half on a 9-2 run that ended when senior Jaylen Jones sank a three-pointer from the right corner with 5:32 left in the quarter. That tied the score at 46-46 and it would be the closest Cerritos would get to any lead because sophomore Kristopher Smith took over. He hit a three-pointer and later added two more baskets as the Gladiators opened up an eight-point lead.

While Anderson, Bragg and Smith dominated the fourth quarter, combining for all but one point Gahr would score in the final eight minutes, the defense limited the Dons to 11 points, nine coming on three-pointers from senior Brandon Yoon and sophomore Jason Anigbo, and Cerritos never scored on consecutive possessions.

“We did a better job but we still have a long way to go,” Roper said. “We have a young team and a lot of guys are playing together for the first time. It just has to come together. But not to take anything away from Cerritos, they outplayed us last week and they deserved to win that game. That’s a really good team they have and they’ll have a shot at their league and might even go far in [the] Division II [playoffs]. They’re no slouch; they’re really good. Evan [Leonard] is probably the best player in the area.”

“Our defense picked it up today because every game, our offense is going to come,” Bragg said. “But the way we’re going to win games is by defense.”

Bragg scored a game-high 21 points and had 10 rebounds and three assists while Smith added 18 points and Anderson another 15 points along with nine rebounds and four steals. Gahr would then open pool play action of the North Orange Country Championships with a 95-87 win against Lakewood High this past Monday. The Gladiators would face Martin Luther King High this past Wednesday with another three games to play in the tournament

“It’s a tough tournament, so we have to be ready,” Roper said. “I think the other thing, too, is we had a great year last season. The year before that with Malachi [Hoosein] was pretty good too. So I think our younger guys haven’t quite [figured out] that this is a big game. So for Lakewood, that’s going to be a big game on Monday.”

Cerritos was led by Yoon’s 15 points and Leonard’s 13 points and eight rebounds. However, Leonard left the game in the fourth quarter due to leg cramps. The Dons are also in the North Orange County Championships and defeated Paramount High 60-52 this past Monday. Cerritos was matched up with Ayala High this past Wednesday and once the tournament is over, it will face Downey High on Monday at the Staples Center.