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20th ANNUAL SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA HOLIDAY PREP CLASSIC: Cerritos ends frustrating week with blowout win over host school of prestigious tournament

The Cerritos High girls basketball team ended an emotional week by taking care of El Capitan High 75-33 last Saturday morning in the 20th Annual Southern California Holiday Prep Classic. PHOTO BY LOREN KOPFF.

January 2, 2023

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on X

LAKESIDE-To say that the Cerritos High girls basketball team had a rough week to close out 2023 would be an understatement. The Dons were in San Diego to play in the 20th annual Southern California Holiday Prep Classic but had their minds elsewhere all last week as they played the first two games of the tournament, then came back to the Southland last Friday to attend a funeral for former Cerritos boys basketball player Ethan Soriano before returning to America’s Finest City.

Cerritos began the highly touted tournament on Dec. 27 with a 65-54 loss to Gig Harbor (WA) High, then came out flat against Fallbrook High (55-29) and Torrey Pines High (47-30) last Thursday and Friday, respectively. But the Dons ended a four-game slide last Saturday by routing El Capitan High 75-33, setting a season-high in points scored. El Capitan was one of nine locations that hosted 94 teams over 11 divisions, mostly from the Western United States and a couple from Canada. The Dons were one of eight teams in the NAIA Division.

“With everything that has happened in the past [week], and they had closure yesterday, I think that was something that really helped them; that they had a chance to close out [the game] and pay their respects to their classmate,” said Cerritos head coach Marcus Chinen. “That was something that may have been on their mind the two games in between. The first game, we just played solidly, but unfortunately, we came up short.”

In fact, early in the fourth quarter, during an 18-0 run, Cerritos assistant Richard Villeza turned to his players on the bench and was heard asking the players on the bench, ‘where has this been all season’? 

Cerritos and El Capitan came out shooting hot from long distance in the opening quarter with the Vaqueros connecting on three of four three-pointers and Cerritos perfect on all three of its trifectas by three different players. Cerritos led 18-11 after the first quarter but it wasn’t until the 6:25 mark of the second quarter when the Dons began to pour it on.

A three-pointer from freshman Kalana Nguyen and a two-point basket from senior Oneyka Nwanze in a span of 74 seconds made it 23-14. Later in the stanza, senior Mailee Dizon drained the team’s fifth downtown basket of the half to make it 34-21. A free throw seconds later would close out the first half scoring, in which half a dozen Cerritos players were part of.

“Both sides were hot, and when we looked at it, it was going to be a battle down to the end,” said Chinen. “We always kept saying, ‘you have to keep shooting the ball, you have to keep shooting the ball’. Maybe one of us, and hopefully it’s not us, may not make everything or the percentage won’t be as high. Because it’s really harder to have a high percentage going all the way through the game.”

The Dons kept the momentum going in the third quarter, draining three more shots from beyond the arc, two by Dizon, and seeing half a dozen players be a part of the 19-point performance. When the quarter had ended, Cerritos was owing a 54-32 lead. El Capitan would not score its last point until there was 3:16 left to play. That came after the Dons scored the first 15 points of the final quarter.

Nwanze, who led everyone with 24 points and 19 rebounds, could have had more points if it wasn’t for the missed baskets from 12 offensive boards. She would, though, score on half a dozen offensive putbacks. Dizon added 17 points with five three-pointers while senior Mia Rivera (10 points, four rebounds, four steals), junior Ambar Multani (four points, eight rebounds) and sophomore Cameron Lacorte (four steals) also had solid performances.

“She’ll probably have to keep it up, and then hopefully it will open up our shooters, or open up some lanes for our girls to drive to the basket,” said Chinen of Nwanze. “But all in all, it’s actually going to be our defense controlling the boards, both offensively and defensively.”

The Dons, who began the season with five wins in their first six games, begin 605 League action with an 8-8 record. They visited Oxford Academy this past Wednesday and will host Artesia High on Friday before going to Pioneer High on Tuesday. 

“It’s been a great, learning experience for all the girls back to what we’re normally doing,” said Chinen of the first 16 games. “That’s one thing they had to pick up on, was that we’re going to play the way we play and hopefully it will work out and take us a little deeper in the playoffs than last year.”