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605 LEAGUE BOYS BASKETBALL – Artesia buries Whitney in fourth quarter with three-pointers, gains control of second place

January 29, 2024

 By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on X

Coming into this season, the Artesia High boys basketball team had faced Whitney High 10 times, all in 605 League games, winning by an average of 30.3 points. On Jan. 9, without senior Zion Staples, who was recovering from a bad fall just four days earlier against Cerritos High, the Pioneers escaped with a 31-27 victory.

Sole possession of second place in the league was on the line last Friday when the two met on senior night at Artesia and despite a Whitney rally late in the third quarter and early in the fourth quarter, the hosts exploded for five three-pointers in the final 5:50 of the contest to come away with a 56-36 win. Artesia improved to 16-9 overall and 6-2 in league while the Wildcats dropped to 14-9, 5-3. It was the third closest margin of victory of the dozen games in the series.

“Obviously Zion is a great player and that’s always a big difference,” said Artesia head coach Jeff Myles. “It was our senior night too, so our guys were emotional there. We had just lost a tough one to Cerritos [two days earlier], so I wasn’t sure how our guys would respond.”

Down by 20 points in the first few minutes of the third quarter, junior Morgan Marks tried to put the Wildcats on his back, scoring all but three points in the stanza, then the first four points of the fourth quarter to bring Whitney to within six points. But Artesia junior Cayden Del Rosario nailed three long distance shots and Staples had a three-point play, plus a trifecta as the Pioneers quickly went up 49-33 with 3:33 remaining in the game.

“In the first game, Cayden Del Rosario didn’t play, and he was kind of the difference maker in the game, I thought, [tonight] as well,” said Myles. “Morgan is a pretty good player and we decided to work on our man defense and he kind of got by our guys a couple of times without the help rotation there. Then we made some subs and I think that second group that I went with…those five guys were just going through the motion and didn’t really take the game as serious, thinking the game was already out of hand. But Whitney still played hard and is coached hard and they kind of made their run.”

“I think if we had come out like that in the beginning of the game, with the same mentality, it would have been a little different game,” said Whitney first-year head coach Nasir Akmal of the third quarter. “But Artesia is tough either way; Artesia is Artesia. But I think from our end, they’re starting to get there and today was a good progression from us from a coach’s standpoint as far as that third quarter. Now, doing that four quarters is what we have to do next, and we have a short time because we have Oxford and Cerritos, then hopefully we secure third and we have playoffs.”

Without the services of one of its consistent leaders for the past few seasons, senior Sakeef Sekender, who hyper-extended his right knee and fractured his right ankle against Pioneer High on Jan. 19, the Wildcats still were hanging around in the first quarter, taking the lead less than 90 seconds in on a three-pointer from junior Christian Carreon and ending the stanza down 13-7. But Artesia dominated the second quarter 13-5 and never looked back. Carreon scored all eight of his points in the first half while the other four came from freshman Jezreel Dela Cruz off the bench. The other four starters combined to miss all six shots taken from the field.

“The younger guys…I’m trying to get them to step up,” said Akmal. “I have two freshmen out there filling his spot.”

Meanwhile, Staples was back to his usual self, scoring six points and grabbing four rebounds with three steals and an assist in the first quarter while senior Joshua Martinez added the other seven points and an assist in the quarter. Staples scored once in the second quarter, but added another three boards as the Pioneers built a 26-12 halftime advantage.

The second half began with junior Jovel Tate scoring off a steal, a Martinez basket and two offensive putbacks from Staples as the Pioneers increased their lead to 34-14 before Marks scored the game’s next seven points. The quarter would end with senior Joseph Whittaker converting a three-point play with 1:13 remaining.

“Morgan is a special kid,” said Akmal. “I think, for us, it’s just getting him to believe that also. I think he knows he has it, but now our job is to make him have it every game. And [assistant] coach Devin Golston has done a great job as far as working his mental [game] and getting him out there.”

Marks’ last basket of that 12-0 run made the score 34-28 with 6:07 left in the game before it was the Del Rosario show for the next two minutes. After that, the ‘Cats went two of seven from the field the rest of the game. Marks led Whitney with 16 points, had five rebounds and three assists while Dela Cruz added nine points.

Whitney, which needs one more win to secure third place outright, hosts fifth place Oxford Academy on Tuesday and league champion Cerritos on Thursday before making its second straight trip to the CIF-Southern Section playoffs. This is also the second straight season the Wildcats will finish with a winning record as last season, they went 22-10. Before last season, the program had just four winning seasons since the 2002-2003 campaign. This will also be the program’s 11th trip to the playoffs over that same time.

“I think the players don’t realize it yet either, because they’ve been stuck with that stigma for a long time and it’s tough to try to change the culture and create a culture,” said Akmal. “But staff-wise, we believe in them 100 percent. I’m a Whitney alum myself; I’m from the 90s. So, we were battling it out with Crossroads, Pacific Hills, Campbell Hall and Brentwood in the old Delphic League. We were playing against Baron Davis.

“When I first took over, the initial thing I said was we were going to treat the pre-league stuff like offseason, and then league was going to be preparation for the playoffs,” he later added. “If I look back at our first game compared to today, it’s a totally different team. We’re not where we need to be yet, but we still have a week left. I, 100 percent, believe we can be dangerous, and just like last year, we went up against a higher seed [in the playoffs] and we took them out, then went on a roll.”

Staples finished with 18 points, 10 rebounds and three steals while Del Rosario connected on all four shots he took, scored a season-high 12 points and Martinez pitched in with 11 points and six rebounds. The Pioneers, who have locked up second place for the third time since the 2018-2019 season, visit Pioneer on Tuesday, Oxford Academy on Thursday and Mayfair High on Saturday.

“It’s funny because this year has actually been like a rebuilding year in the sense that Zion is only the real guy who has experience,” said Myles. “Although Josh was a starter last year, he only played half the season. So, this is really his first full year of experience and everybody else who was on the team never really played much. This is pretty much a brand new team this year.

“Obviously, we would have wanted to win more games,” he continued. “But I think we’re in a good place. With us, when we play the right way, which is sharing the basketball; moving the basketball, we can be a dangerous team because now we have a couple of guys who can shoot it.”