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BOYS BASKETBALL – Spurlin-Renfroe’s buzzer-beater sends Gahr into overtime as Gladiators rally to defeat Cerritos

Gahr High junior Jared Joseph shoots over Cerritos High sophomore Jaden Ribac in last Thursday night’s annual city basketball game. This one went to Gahr, 64-61 in overtime as Joseph scored 12 points, five coming in the fourth quarter as Gahr rallied from a 12-point deficit nearly midway in the third quarter. Photo by Armando Vargas, Contributing photographer.

December 28, 2022

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

Each season when the Cerritos High and Gahr High boys basketball teams meet for their yearly tussle for supremacy in the city, there seems to be a different storyline. This season was no different, but this time, there were multiple storylines.

For starters, both teams came in with a combined record of 5-19, clearly the worst mark in the history of this rivalry at the time of their meeting. Then there was the personnel involved, in which there were a combined three seniors (all from Cerritos) 15 juniors, seven sophomores and three freshmen. But the top storyline involved a first in the rivalry-an overtime session. 

Cerritos High junior Tobeanna Ozoagu (left) and Gahr High junior Evan Spurlin-Renfroe battle for a rebound in last Thursday night’s city rivalry game. Spurlin-Renfroe would have a lot to say in the outcome as his steal, offensive rebound from a missed shot and buzzer-beater basket, all in the final seconds of regulation, sent the game into overtime. From there, Gahr pulled out a 64-61 win. Photo by Armando Vargas, Contributing photographer.

That was made possible by a massive comeback from Gahr and junior Evan Spurlin-Renfroe, who had a steal inside the final 9.6 seconds of regulation, put up a shot which was missed, grabbed his own offensive rebound and tied the game at the buzzer. Then in overtime, Gahr limited the Dons to just two free throws as it rallied from 12 points down in the third quarter to defeat Cerritos 64-61. The Gladiators now lead the season series 18-13 in games played since 1999, which also includes seven games in the once co-hosted Cerritos-Gahr Tournament which would be held in early December. Gahr has now won back to back games against its city rivals for the first time since 2016-2017.

“It was everything I expected it to be, and then some,” said Gahr first-year head coach Marcus Girley. “You really never know until you feel it. So, that energy that was in the gym tonight is something that’s very rare, and I think that comes from the history of the rivalry. I’m just thankful we came out on the winning side of it. Both teams fought and that game could have gone either way.”

“This is fun; it brings out the best in both teams,” said Cerritos head coach Jonathan Watanabe. “It’s great to play the game. It’s always who is going to step up and [Gahr] stepped up and played really well. They had guys shine and we had guys step up in moments. And it’s a big environment. I mean, look at the crowd; it’s awesome. This is a CIF [playoff] environment. So, if you don’t want to play these kinds of games, I don’t know what kind of games you want to play.”

Watanabe, who has been around the rivalry for over two decades, perceived last Thursday night’s game as how it finished with a combined seven returning players and many more inexperienced at the varsity level. And while he has been around to see a lot of blown leads and rallies from both teams, no one could have pictured this one.

A three-pointer from Cerritos junior Shay Pema with 4:41 left in the third quarter left the Dons with a 43-31 lead. The next two baskets from the black and gold over the next 5:54 would be three-pointers and then with 4:29 remaining in regulation, a basket from senior Dominic DelaCruz gave the Dons a 56-45 advantage.

After that, the rally began for the Gladiators. With just under four minutes remaining, junior Jared Joseph nailed a trifecta, followed by another field goal, both in a span of 18 seconds to make it 56-50. A free throw from junior Trey Reyes brought the Gladiators to within five points but Cerritos junior Luke Rigor thought his three-pointer with a minute remaining would be the clincher, leaving the Dons with a 59-51 advantage. That would be the last field goal for Cerritos the remainder of the game.

“We were playing not to lose, and that happens,” said Watanabe. “We have a young team, and we couldn’t finish plays and we’re trying to get bailed out. Gahr came out and were aggressive offensively. Give credit to them. They came out and attacked it. They were down and it looked like the game was over. But they didn’t give up, so hats off to them.”

Gahr sophomore Uchenna Okoli scored shortly after the Rigor three-pointer and Spurlin-Renfroe had a steal and basket to make it 59-55 with 28.8 seconds remaining in regulation. After both teams called timeouts over the next 19 seconds, junior Dayvon Gates nailed two crucial free throws with 9.6 seconds left. Then came a turnover and Spurlin-Renfroe’s series of events to tie the game.

“Evan came to me, looked me in the eyes; the first time I’ve seen him do it all season, and he says, ‘coach, don’t worry, I got you,’ recalled Girley. “I had no idea what he was talking about. I don’t think he did either. But I think that gave him that confidence. He really found himself and he’s growing up right in front of my eyes. He’s a great kid, a great student, comes from a great family and I wanted this so much for him.”

“I would say we work on that in practice,” said Spurlin-Renfroe. “Coach always tells us to always be patient and in situations with pressure, you always have to embrace it. So, I just did what I did out there and I just embraced the pressure.”

No one scored in overtime until Gates completed a three-point play with 2:37 left. The next score wouldn’t come until there were 36.4 seconds remaining when Gates added another free throw. Following a free throw from Gahr sophomore Joshua Pearson with 5.7 ticks left, Cerritos had one last attempt to tie the game. But a three-point try from sophomore Jaden Ribac fell short.

“I want to give myself all the credit, but to be honest with you, I think desperation came up with a strategy,” said Girley. “We’re down, so now I’m subbing more offense for defense. I’m getting guys in on dead balls, and I think now, I have my shooters on the offensive end. I have my defenders, who are great on energy defensively on the other end and I think they felt that pressure for the first time.”

“There were a lot of big shots on both sides,” said Watanabe. “But I think the biggest thing was us just not going to make plays; again, not lose the game instead of trying to win the game. When you do that, usually you end up on the losing side of it.”

The game began as one would expect in this heated rivalry, which has now been decided by less than five points seven times since 1999, but the first since 2017. Gahr had a strong first quarter, scoring nine straight points to own a 10-3 lead with 2:41 left in the opening quarter. But when Ribac hit a three-pointer with 4.5 seconds left, the stanza ended in a 13-13 affair. There would be three lead changes in the second quarter and neither team had a lead of greater than three points until Rigor’s basket made it 27-23 with 1:48 left in the first half.

Fouls and free throws would dominate the stanza as there would be a combined 17 fouls whistled with Cerritos going seven of 10 from the line in the quarter and the Gladiators hitting 11 of 15 charity shots. On top of that, Gates, Joseph, Pearson, Pema and Cerritos junior Osinachi Agaranna all had three fouls before halftime. When the game had ended, two had fouled out. 

“I just told our guys, when you miss 15 free throws, you have a .001 percent chance of winning,” said Girley. “I said somebody must be on our side. Somebody must be rooting for us; the basketball gods blessed us, and we work on free throws religiously. I’ll just chalk it up to nerves and anxiety.”

“I felt like at halftime, we all came to agree that the game was not over,” said Spurlin-Renfroe. “The game is not over until the buzzer rings in every game. I felt like it was more of a push, it was 0-0 and we just compete.”

Unlike the beginning of the game, Cerritos began the second half strong with baskets from junior Tobeanna Ozoagu and Pema and three-pointers from DelaCruz and Pema giving the visitors a 43-31 lead. After that, the Dons shot four of 26 from the field over the next 16:41.

“I think we were taking what they gave us,” said Watanabe. “I think that was the biggest thing. You have two teams that are in similar situations; young squads, inexperienced, we both played tough schedules. So, we’re both learning and today, we took the harder lesson.

“We were defending and rebounding,” he later said. “That’s what it came down to. When we defend and rebound, we’re good. But when we give up offensive buckets and we’re getting many guys to the lane, they’re able to create and score. So, we were able to do that for the majority of the game but couldn’t finish it off.”

“I think sometimes when you get down, you realize you don’t have much to lose,” said Girley. “So, I think guys are now more relaxed and more comfortable, they’re not thinking as much, and guys are just playing off instincts. Another thing that helped us is we got two of their key guys into foul trouble.”

Gates led all scorers with 20 points, including nine of 15 from the line while Joseph and Spurlin- Renfroe each added a dozen points. After shooting 12 times from the field in the first half, Gahr finished the game 19 of 41 from the field and was 19 of 33 from the line. The Gladiators would begin this past week with a 63-31 loss to Crenshaw High in pool play action of the Nogales Tournament and faced the host school and Gardena High the next two days. The Gladiators will play their first Mid-Cities League game on Wednesday at former San Gabriel Valley League rival Warren High.

For Cerritos, it was led by DelaCruz (16 points, five assists), Pema (14 points, three assists) and Agaranna (eight rebounds). The Dons would fall to St. Margaret’s High 68-57 this past Monday in the first game of the Orange Tournament, then knocked off Boulder City (NV) High 44-33 this past Tuesday. The Dons would face Orange High to wrap up pool play action and will begin 605 League action on Wednesday at Artesia High.

As far as this great rivalry goes, the 20 points from Gates was the most from any Gahr player since Jarrel King scores 21 points in 2017, a 56-52 win from Cerritos. For the Dons, this is the second straight season their top leader had 16 points. Last season, Brendon Dela Pena had 16 points in a Gahr 68-55 win. And as a sidenote, Gahr’s longest winning streak in the rivalry is eight games (2009-2014) while the highest for Cerritos is four (2017-2020).

“It’s always a dogfight,” said Spurlin-Renfroe. “I know a couple of guys out there and it’s more of a competitive nature and I’m not one to back down from competition.”

“We’ve been through enough battles where we should have been able to finish this one off,” said Watanabe. “We lost by five to Colony, we lost by three to Cypress, we lost by one to Los Osos [and] we were finally able to get over the hump and beat Villa Park [last Saturday]. But that’s how it goes. We’re playing this schedule because we want to get better. You can only be the best if you play the best, and that’s what it comes down to.”