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605 LEAGUE BOYS BASKETBALL – Pema’s clutch fourth quarter shots help Cerritos edge Artesia in physical battle

Cerritos high school logo, don

January 10, 2024

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on X

Since the inception of 605 League at the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year, the road to the boys basketball league title has gone through either Artesia High (the last two seasons) or Cerritos High (the first three seasons). The two league powers met for the first time this season last Friday night in front of a raucous crowd on Alumni Night at Cerritos.

There was an abundance of shots taken, there was a lot of rebounding and there was more than enough physical play to go around. But more importantly, there was a fourth quarter rally by the Dons that enabled the hosts to hold a temporary upper hand on the league as they got past the Pioneers 50-47.

“We just have to play; we can’t make the game bigger than it was,” said Cerritos head coach Jonathan Watanabe. “We came out and made this like the Super Bowl, and it’s just a game. We’re trying to get nine [more] wins, and today was our number two. We just have to make sure we keep things in perspective. And it’s just a game.”

Those who played and those who were in attendance would agree that the game would have been much different had it not been for an injury to Artesia senior Zion Staples. Just 23 seconds into the contest, Staples blocked a shot, which was rebounded by senior Joshua Martinez. However, Staples landed hard on the court, first on his back, then his head. After he was attended to for several minutes, Staples left the game and would sit out the rest of the half.

“Zion is a big, strong kid, but obviously we were worried about him,” said Artesia head coach Jeff Myles. “If he wasn’t able to play, we wouldn’t have played him. We checked him out, sat him out the first half. I think he was more scared about himself; he’s never fell that hard before. But again, that was him making a play on the ball.”

“I’m just glad he’s okay, because that was a scary fall,” said Watanabe. “I’m glad he was able to come back and play because we want everyone to be healthy. Gosh, if we’ve learned anything this year, it’s scary. Stuff like that happens, and it’s scary.”

Artesia would not take its first shot until the 6:04 mark of the game and the game’s first points did not happen until junior Jaylen Reed sank two free throws with 4:40 left in the quarter to give the Pioneers the lead. Meanwhile, the Dons missed their first eight shots and did not score until junior Jaylen Barsana nailed a three-pointer a little over a minute after Reed opened the scoring.

Even without Staples, the Pioneers never trailed in the first quarter, though the game remained a one-possession affair. The lead would extend to six points early in the second quarter before the Dons began to pick up their game. With 5:13 remaining in the half, a three-pointer from junior Nathan Ju began a 10-0 run that lasted nearly three minutes. The Dons, who attempted 18 shots from beyond the arc in the half, would see junior Benson Cho and senior Luke Rigor hit trifectas in the final 1:56 as they would lead 26-23 at the half.

Artesia was eight of 24 from the field in the half, but Martinez was saddled with three fouls, all coming in the second quarter. Cerritos also made eight baskets from the field but attempted four more shots. The difference was in the three-point category where the Dons were true six times while the visitors connected on half of that.

“As far as the first half, I think our guys were more nervous at first when [Zion] went out,” said Myles. “We couldn’t score for a while. But a couple of plays later, another guy kind of got hurt, too. It made us really thin, but we kept it within three. I think we played hard.”

“Obviously, it’s sad that he was hurt and had to stay out in the first half,” said Cerritos senior Shay Pema of Staples. “But I think in the first half, we were able to do what we needed to and be able to play strong in the beginning, which would set us up for the second half.”

The pendulum swung back in Artesia’s favor in the third quarter, which went on a 12-3 run over the first six and half minutes to regain its second six-point advantage. Staples would be a force, grabbing five of his six rebounds in the stanza on the offensive end and scoring five points. All six points from Cerritos came from senior Osinachi Agaranna. 

“I think it shows to go as the team who we are that even in the lowest moment, that we’ll still come together and push through and do what needs to be done to make sure that we secure the win and get back from last year,” said Pema. 

“We couldn’t hit a shot,” said Watanabe. “So, we were just relying on our defense. Our defense kept us in the game. That’s what we hang our hats on. We have to defend, and he have to trust that we’re going to hit shots when we need them.”

After going one of five from the field and scoring four points through the first three quarters, Pema nearly took control of the fourth quarter, and it began with a three-pointer 51 seconds into the stanza to tie the game at 35-35. Then with five minutes left in the game, Pema again tied the game at 41-41. A half a minute later, senior Tobenna Ozoagu gave Cerritos the lead for good.

“We were waiting for him to start hitting some shots,” said Watanabe of Pema. “I don’t know what took him so long. But we have a lot of good pieces. I want to point out, [junior] Nathan Dawit came up huge for us on both ends of the floor. But he was able to defend and use his athleticism to defend a rebound and then he knocked down some big shots on [our] end. He was huge tonight.”

Probably the dagger in the heart came with 1:41 left in the game when Dawit took a pass from Ozoagu and drained a three-pointer as the shot clock buzzer sounded. That put the black and gold up 47-41. Although a basket from Staples made it 48-47 with less than a half minute left in the game, Pema iced the victory with a pair of free throws with five and a half seconds left.

“Honestly, I don’t know where the game swung,” said Myles. “I have to go back and watch the film. But it’s their home court; it’s a Friday night. I’ve been here five years at the helm and every time I’ve been here, we play them on a Friday night at their place, it’s always a great place to play. They made shots; I think they made a big shot at the buzzer [with the shot clock expiring]. I think one of their transfer kids [Dawit] made a big shot. We know if Zion would have played [in the first half], things might have been different.”

Cerritos attempted 56 shots from the field, but was 10 of 41 from three-point territory with Cho, Dawit and Pema combining to go six of 16 from long range. Meanwhile, the Pioneers were 18 of 55 from the field and connected on one trifecta in the second half.

“Our shooters are going to shoot it, and we’re going to trust that percentages will play in our favor,” said Watanabe. “But we’ve given certain players the green light to shoot it when they’re open.”

“That’s the game of basketball,” said Myles. “That’s how the game was going down; there were a lot of shots. It doesn’t matter if you’re 10 of 100. It’s a matter of when you make them, and they made some timely ones. I don’t care if they shot 10 of 1,000. They made the big ones when they counted, and hat’s off to them. 

“We still have a chance to split for the league title, which will be okay,” he continued. “We still have all our goals in front of us. So, we’ll see.”

Staples led the Pioneers with a dozen points and grabbed nine rebounds while Martinez added 11 points and six boards. Reed also had a solid game with seven points and three rebounds as Artesia out-rebounded Cerritos 41-33. Nine of 10 Artesia players had at least one rebound and all but two scored.

“A couple of weeks ago we went to Florida, and it was really aggressive out there, and our guys kind of got used to that [style of] play,” said Myles. “We’re still trying to adjust back to the California style where [the officials] call a lot of the hand checks. Out there they didn’t, so Josh kind of had a couple of ticky-tack ones. I thought he stepped up when Zion wasn’t there, grabbed some rebounds and kind of kept the game within striking distance and made a big shot in the second half.”

Pema led the Dons with 12 points and six rebounds while Agaranna and Cho added nine and seven points respectively, with five and three rebounds respectively. 

“I think this one was a step forward,” said Pema. “We still need to beat them [at their place]; we still need to play them one more time to make sure we secure our league championship. This was just the beginning for us.

“Normally, we like to take the shots that we have and that are open,” he later said. “Since they were playing a zone and they were keeping us out, keeping us open from the outside, we know what our capabilities are and how we’re able to shoot three-pointers and make that basket. So, we just continued to shoot from the outside and do what we knew we could do.”

The win ended a brief four-game winning streak by Artesia over the Dons. Before that, Cerritos had won 17 straight contests over the Pioneers. Last season, the Pioneers defeated the Dons by 11 and 31 points, respectively. This was the first meeting between the schools which was decided by less than 10 points since Apr. 20, 2021, also a Cerritos 50-47 victory. 

“We’re trying to get nine [more wins],” said Watanabe. “All we play for are championships. That’s it. That’s the only reason why I came back, is we’re coming here to play for a championship. We needed nine wins, and this was just number two. It doesn’t matter who they’re against. But this is number two, so we need eight more. 

“In this 605 League, there have been 15 championships-freshmen, [junior varsity], varsity-and we’ve won 12 of them,” he continued. “Our goal is to win 15 of the 18; win all three levels, because we dominate this league. We took a step back last year. But we’ve won 12 of the 15 and Artesia has three. So, we’re trying to make sure we get to 15 and keep them at three. It’s not just about the varsity level. It’s about developing the players at the lower levels. We’re trying to win the freshmen, the j.v. and the varsity. Last year we only won the j.v. and that’s not good enough for us. We need to win at all three levels.”

Artesia (10-6, 2-1), which had won 20 straight league games, squeaked by Whitney High 31-27 this past Tuesday. Staples did not suit up in the rare low-scoring affair between the two. In the previous 10 league meetings with the Wildcats, Artesia had not scored fewer than 52 points and its victories ranged from 15-40 points. Martinez scored a team-high 11 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. The Pioneers faced Palm Springs High the next day at Crypto.com Arena and will host Pioneer High on Friday and Beverly Hills High on Saturday before entertaining Oxford Academy on Wednesday. Cerritos (10-10, 3-0), which began the league winning 29 of its first 30 league games, evened its mark for the sixth time this season following an 85-53 win over Pioneer this past Tuesday. The Dons will try to move over .500 for the second time this season when they visit last place John Glenn High on Friday before hosting Whitney on Wednesday.