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605 LEAGUE BOYS BASKETBALL – Artesia supplies the knockout punch on blackout night, takes frustrations out on Cerritos

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

The Cerritos High boys basketball team pulled out all the stops for its biggest game of the season to this point, but it was Artesia High that spoiled the party as the second round of 605 League play began. The Dons asked their student body and others to wear black for a ‘blackout’ atmosphere and former player and 2007 graduate Christopher Helmage (@djchelm on Instagram) provided the entertainment before the game, during timeouts and at halftime.

But the Pioneers moved one step closer to their second straight league title by holding off the Dons 53-42 last Friday night, improving to 15-7 overall and undefeated in six league games. Cerritos dropped to 9-14, 4-2 and is tied with Whitney High for second place after the Wildcats knocked off John Glenn High 47-35.

“This is a tough place to play,” said Artesia head coach Myles. “It’s a Friday night and they have a rowdy crowd. They have both [stands] open, so we expected a rowdy crowd. Last time they were one of 27 from three’s, so we knew they were going to make shots in this game. We just had to hold our composure. I thought for spurts, we kind of lost our composure. But we really wanted this one.

“We read what they said about us, that the Whitney kid was M.V.P. [of the league] when we have guys [who are deserving] of the M.V.P. We read what they said how we don’t develop our players, which was a slap in the face to [junior] Zion [Staples] and [junior Aaron] Banks and [senior] Steve [Anderson Jr.] and all our guys who have been here for two and three years. We took this one personal.”

Myles, his coaching staff and the players took exception to comments made by Cerritos head coach Jonathan Watanabe following the Jan. 13 win at Whitney. So, the Pioneers came out and played defensive-minded early in the game, grabbing 10 rebounds in the first quarter, limiting the hosts to seven points in the opening quarter and allowing the Dons to take the lead once.

“They just got lucky that [junior] Tobe [Ozoagu] got injured,” said Watanabe. “That was the huge difference in the game. When he went down, our guys rallied, and we had other guys step up and fill the role. But you can’t replace that. He just does so much for us, not just scoring but rebounding and defending. It was tough, but our guys stepped up and did a great job.”

Ozoagu attempted two shots in the opening quarter and scored one point in the game.

Cerritos sophomore Benson Cho opened the second quarter scoring a minute and a half in to make it a one-point game. But Artesia responded with a 7-0 run to set a pace for the remainder of the contest. The rebounding continued for the Pioneers with Staples adding five more to the three he had in the first quarter and when the game was over, he had grabbed 13 rebounds while Banks had pulled down 11 rebounds. 

With all that going on, Cerritos was able to stay within reasonable distance because Artesia’s key players were in foul trouble before halftime. Junior Joshua Martinez and Staples each picked up their third foul with under a minute remaining in the half and Anderson Jr. had two fouls in the first quarter. 

“We have confidence in our bench,” said Myles. “I could have gone to anybody on the bench today, but we have confidence in all 13 guys that we have on our team. They’re ready for the challenge. 

“But I want to say our freshmen have had a great season this year,” he added. “They beat Cerritos, too. So, everybody talks about the transfers, but how about we talk about our young talent that we have at the lower levels? With public schools, it’s a roller coaster. Some years you’re up, some years you’re down. Right now, we’re up and maybe in a couple of years, it’s back to Cerritos. But for right now, it’s our time.”

“Well, they don’t play defense,” said Watanabe. “They sit in the zone and they just use their length. We had to take advantage of the fact that they play out of control, so we look to take charges. They go over guys’ backs, so we just look to box out. We knew that if we play the way we play, we knew we would get them into foul trouble. It’s definitely better with some of the bigs off the court.”

Artesia led by as many as 13 points with a minute left in the third quarter following a Staples basket. But the Dons were not ready to pack it in as a three-pointer from senior Chase Rambaran and a basket from senior Dominic DelaCruz, both in the final 45.7 seconds of the third made it 39-31. Cerritos then got it down to a three-point game after a trifecta from sophomore Jaden Ribac with 4:50 left in the game.

That would be the last field goal of the night for the Dons who would get just three free throws the remainder of the game. Meanwhile, the Pioneers kept doing what they had been doing for the previous 28 minutes or so of game time-defense and rebounding. The Pioneers added 11 more boards to their game total of 47, which more than doubled the total of what Cerritos got.

“My big three, Steve, Zion and Aaron…we went to the semifinals last year, so we’ve been in a hostile environment,” said Myles. “We went to Burroughs last year and it was way, way crazier than this. So, they just kept their composure and just buckled down. Our motto is ‘get a kill’, which is three stops in a row, and we did that. We kind of took control of the game.”

“We actually got to see their new personnel,” said Watanabe of the first meeting with Artesia. “That was their first game playing with all their transfers. We had to adjust on the fly with what they were going to do because you take those two starters out that transferred in this year, and they’re a different team.  It was a little bit of an adjustment in the first round seeing what they could do.”

Banks led everyone with 17 points while Staples and senior Caleb Brown-Stanton each had 10 points. Anderson Jr. and Martinez would combine for 15 points and 15 rebounds as those five starters combined to stay on the court for all but 12 minutes of the game.

“We’ve been practicing every day, so those guys came and helped us obviously,” said Myles of his transfer players. “But the other guys who didn’t get a chance to play today [have] played big minutes before we had the guys transfer in. So, I know I could have put those guys in today. But we’re just trying to take it one game at a time. We want to win league, we want to win more games than lose, obviously and our ultimate goal is to win CIF. We’re in a tough division, so we’re trying to get there and see what happens.”

Cho, who came off the bench, and junior Luke Rigor, each had nine points while DelaCruz, who was in foul trouble through the final minute of the game, had nine rebounds and six points. Agaranna also had six points and six rebounds.

“He’s leading us,” said Watanabe of DelaCruz. “He’s injured, but he’s leading us; he’s playing through it. It’s his senior year, so he’s not missing any games. But he’s playing through some pains right now. He’s giving us all he’s got.”

Artesia, which went to Whitney this past Wednesday, will travel to Pioneer High on Friday with a chance to potentially clinch the league title. The Pioneers will then wrap up the regular season against Oxford Academy on Tuesday and John Glenn on Thursday. Cerritos, which has already matched its victory total of last season, went to Pioneer this past Wednesday and will visit Glenn on Friday before hosting Whitney and Oxford Academy on Tuesday and Thursday respectively.

“Our guys are pretty much riled up for every game,” said Myles. “Everybody thinks that we’re not doing it the right way, which we are. Nobody said anything when Jonathan Nelson transferred in or Jalen Constantino. It was okay because Cerritos was still beating Artesia. Now that we’re winning, now it’s a problem. Nobody said anything when John Glenn got the transfers [last season] or Pioneer got the transfer or Cerritos get the transfers. Now we get a couple of kids who transfer in and now it’s a problem? It’s basketball nowadays; I have no control over it. All I do is coach the guys who are here and get my guys ready. But we’re working hard over there on Del Amo and Norwalk.”

“We just have to win,” said Watanabe. “They’re just another team. We have our next game and have to make sure we’re ready for Pioneer. We have to make sure we’re playing them. Whoever the next opponent is, it’s the most important game of the season.”