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BOYS BASKETBALL : Cerritos wins battle of momentum swings, rallies twice to beat city rival

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

The annual city rivalry boys basketball game between Cerritos High and Gahr High has never been short of dramatic or interesting moments, whether it has been a close game, a rout or a game-winning basket, to name a few. But the 2019 edition of the game featured four long successive scoring sprees, the last by the host Dons which proved to be the turning point.

Cerritos outscored the Gladiators 26-6 in the third quarter and despite Gahr trailing by a point in the fourth quarter, Cerritos kept the friends from the north side of town at an arm’s length and posted a 68-59 victory last Friday night.

Gahr closed out the first quarter on a 9-0 run only to see Cerritos score the next 10 points. That was followed by a 15-4 Gahr run as it held a 32-21 halftime lead. But in the third quarter, Cerritos shot 10 of 17 from the field while the Gladiators connected on two baskets in 16 attempts.

“It’s two good teams,” said Cerritos co-head coach Jonathan Watanabe. “You’ve got to kind of expect it. Earlier in my career, I would get panicked that the [opponent] was making a run. But you’ve got to understand, when you’re playing good teams, they’re going to make runs. I thought early, we started off slow. But I think we’re a very good team too and we were about to make our run as well. We just needed to lock down on defense and make some free throws and layups.”

“I just thought [Cerritos junior Alexander Archer] took over the game in the third quarter,” said Gahr head coach Ricky Roper. “He just made a lot of big plays. And then our foul trouble kind of caught up with us.”

Archer scored his first 12 points of the game in the third quarter on five of six shooting and senior Eric Clark scored another 10 points in the stanza as the Dons built an 11-point lead to cap off a monster 20-0 run.

Gahr was up 8-7 when junior Mark Onyejekwe hit a three-pointer to begin Gahr’s first scoring spree. During that time, Cerritos would miss 10 straight shots from the field. But a three-pointer from Cerritos senior Ethan Reyes put an end to a 10-0 run to begin the second quarter and tie the game at 17-17.

Junior Gemel Williams put Gahr up 20-17 but shortly after that, junior Jalen Pitre picked up his third foul and that would change some of the complexion of the contest. Pitre, Gahr’s second leading scorer this season, had two points in the first half and attempted four shots.

“It was big,” Watanabe said. “[Pitre and senior Kenneth Hunt] do so much for them. If you could take either of those out, it just stagnates what they’re doing. They focus so much on two guys that the other guys are just depending on them. They’re good players, but if those guys aren’t going, it’s hard for the other guys to get going.”

“It was huge,” Roper said. “We usually press most of the game and we got out of our press at halftime because he was in foul trouble. Coming into the game, I really felt like a lot of things would have to go right for us to beat them. It happened for a half, but you have to do it for a full game.”

Cerritos (9-3) scored the first five points of the second half before a three-pointer from Pitre extended Gahr’s lead to nine points with 5:53 remaining in the third quarter. Gahr would not score again until there was 1:22 left in the stanza on an offensive rebound and basket from senior Ethan Woon. Despite the 20-point advantage in the third quarter, Watanabe said he did not change anything from the first half.

“We did not,” Watanabe said. “We just stuck with the game plan. We just did a better job with staying in front of them and then boxing out.”

“We lost our poise,” Roper said. “They played hard defensively the whole game. But offensively, we kind of lost our poise and they made some shots.”

Another area that hurt the Dons in the first half came from the charity stripe where they went a dismal one of 15. They would turn that around in the final 16 minutes and were true on 13 of 14 free shots. 

“Some of the first half, we kind of knew we would play better in the second half,” Watanabe said. “I’m a guy [who goes by] averages and over the course of a game, we’re not going to continue to go one of 15 for the whole game.”

Gahr (8-5), which began the week ranked 13thin the CIF-Southern Section Division 3AA poll, would spend most of the fourth quarter trailing by one or two possessions but couldn’t get closer than three points, which came following a three-pointer from Woon, making it a 52-49 Cerritos advantage with 4:09 left in the game. Reyes would ice the game with a three-pointer of his own with 1:38 left, making it 62-54.

“We had a couple of possessions down three where we missed three’s that could have tied it,” Roper said. “We were right there.

“I was proud of our effort,” he continued. “They’re a really good team. We’re pretty close to them; we’re good too. We’re in the same division. We might see them again.”

Archer and Clark each led all scorers with 19 points with the latter also pulling down six rebounds. Senior Jagger Uy added 14 points and Reyes another nine points. Junior Obinna Ene grabbed 10 points while Cerritos had a 38-30 advantage in the rebounding department.

“It’s the whole team,” Watanabe said. “Everybody plays their role whether it’s points, rebounds, taking charges…it’s all kinds of little things that help. But it keeps the balance. How many big shots did Eric Clark make? He is a big shot maker. Regardless of what his point total is at the end of the day, when we’re struggling, he is almost always the guy that steps up and takes that big shot. He has no fear.”

Onyejekwe led Gahr with 18 points, had seven rebounds and three steals while Woon pitched in with 14 points with five rebounds. Junior Moses Dollar also had a solid game, grabbing nine rebounds and scoring eight points. The Gladiators will face Palm Springs High in the first game of the Rancho Mirage Tournament on Thursday.

Cerritos, which began the week as the ninth ranked team in Division 3AA, will make its yearly trek to Rancho Penasquitos to participate in the 34thHoliday Hoops Classic at the Mount, hosted by Mt. Carmel High. There, the Dons will face Carlsbad High on Thursday in the first round of bracket play.

“I think the one thing we have to worry about is being complacent and start believing the headlines,” Watanabe said of his team’s fast start to the season. “We’re a good team, but we can be better, and we have to continue to get better.”