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CIF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA BOYS BASKETBALL REGIONALS-La Mirada’s second quarter drought stings them in one-possession setback to Oxnard

La Mirada High senior Sean Cervantes drives around Oxnard High’s E.J. Gomez in the second half of last Thursday night’s CIF Southern California Regional Divisional 2 second round game. Cervantes scored a season-high 20 points but the Matadores came up short in a 61-58 contest, PHOTO BY ARMANDO VARGAS, Contributing photographer.

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March 6, 2023

By Loren Kopff 

@LorenKopff on Twitter

La Mirada High head coach Randy Oronoz said his team came out ready to go against Oxnard High last Thursday in a CIF Southern California second round regional boys basketball game. But he also admitted with a state playoff run, he knew it wasn’t going to come easy to advance one step farther than the Matadores went last season.

A 21-13 lead neatly midway through the second quarter quickly turned to a 13-0 run by the Yellowjackets and that was the spark Oxnard needed to hold on for a 61-58 win. La Mirada concludes another fantastic season at 25-10. Six of the 10 losses have been by one possession, four of which by a point, and the other four setbacks were by 10 points or fewer.

“Credit to our team; credit to them, too,” said Oronoz. “They’re a tough team; a carbon-copy of us. They shoot three’s well and do a lot of tough defense sets. We just needed to see it go through one time and credit to our guys. They fought to the end.”

La Mirada was down 57-47 with 3:20 remaining before staging a desperate rally, which began with senior Sean Cervantes converting a three-point play with 1:43 left. He would then nail a three-pointer with 57.1 seconds left to make it 57-53 and after a basket from Nathaniel Gomez 14 seconds later, Cervantes added his final basket in his high school career with half a minute left. 

A La Mirada timeout and a missed free throw from Dominik Contreras on the front end of a one-and-one gave the Matadores a better chance as senior Anegi Castillo fed a pass to sophomore Julien Gomez, who hit a three-pointer with 16.4 seconds left. Right after La Mirada’s final timeout, Reese Wilderburg sealed the game with a pair of free throws before a desperation three-point attempt from Cervantes with 7.6 seconds did not go in.

After Oxnard had a pair of leads in the first 2:17 of the game, the Matadores reeled off seven straight points with Cervantes getting the first five. The Yellowjackets would tie the game at 10-10 with 87 seconds left in the quarter, but the hosts went on an 8-0 run to hold their largest lead of the game. However, Julien Gomez, who had been held to single digits in scoring twice this season, was heading for a third time early on. He was one of five from the field in the first half, missed three more shots in a high-scoring third quarter, and was in foul trouble in the second quarter.

“Everyone expects Julien to be great because he is, a lot,” said Oronoz. “When he has an off game like this, people like to ask what’s wrong. He’s only a sophomore; he’s going to go through these droughts. On the year, he had about 860 points, so when he doesn’t score, it kind of sticks out like a sore thumb. But he had a great season. When you’re playing in the state, everyone is focused on him. I think he had a great sophomore campaign.”

Even with Gomez not his usual self, Cervantes was picking up the slack, collecting a steal and dishing the ball off to junior Isaiah Valenzuela who drained a trifecta with 4:08 left in the half. That would be the last basket for La Mirada as it would shoot three more times the remainder of the way while turning the ball over four times in the second quarter.

“They went on a 16-5 run to end the half [and] Gomez was in foul trouble,” said Oronoz. “He wasn’t really locked in. He went for a block that gave him his second and that’s where the drought started happening. Not having in there, we turned it over a couple of times. We were a little frustrated with the way we ended that half.”

Senior Athan Sierra began the second half with a three-pointer 10 seconds in and sophomore Morgan Smith tied the game with a pair of free throws nearly a minute later. But Oxnard (31-4), which lost to Orange Lutheran High in the Division 2AA semifinals, then fell to Pacifica Christian High of Orange County last Saturday night, opened a five point lead again and never looked back. La Mirada would get as close as three points in the stanza, but Widerburg connected on three downtown shots in the quarter and ended the game with six three-pointers.

“It seemed like we were a step late,” said Oronoz. “We were for sure a step late tonight. Everyone has a long season, so there’s no excuse. They took a long drive, and we should have been more fresh, I think we started off fresh, but when adversity hit, we didn’t answer the call soon enough, and they just built off momentum.”

Widerburg would lead everyone with 24 points and Bobby Barajas added 13 points while Cervantes posted a season-high 20 points, had four rebounds and two assists. Julien Gomez rebounded to finish with 14 points and grabbed a team-high seven rebounds while Sierra, Smith and Valenzuela all had half a dozen points.

“I think if people understood how hard Sean works, they wouldn’t be surprised by what he does on the court,” said Oronoz. “The amount of work he has put in in this gym in the past year and a half is really a testament to the type of season he’s had, and I think he’s going to be a special college player. For sure, he’s my favorite point guard I’ve had in my 13 years of coaching, and I’ve had some pretty good guards. We’re going to miss him a lot here.”

This season was a vast improvement from the 18-15 campaign of last season in which La Mirada lost seven of its first 11 games, nine of its first 14 and 13 of its first 19. But an undefeated Suburban League season put the team at .500 entering the playoffs where the Matadores fell to San Juan Hills High in the Division 2A championship game, and Los Altos High in the Division 2 second round.

“It’s just a credit to our guys,” said Oronoz. “We’re not easy to play for; we expect excellence and them to play as hard as they can. You guys see the finished product in games, but we make them play that hard in practice, if not harder. So, I’m just proud of the guys and how hard they practice and how hard they play. Their reward was having a phenomenal season.”