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CIF-SS DIV. 4AA BOYS BASKETBALL SEMIFINALS-Cerritos rallies in fourth quarter to reach divisional finals for first time in program’s history

Cerritos High senior Osinachi Agaranna shoots above Jayden Witt of Diamond Ranch High in last Friday’s CIF-Southern Section Division 4AA semifinal game. The Dons rallied in the second half to win 68-61, advancing to a divisional championship game for the first time in the program’s history. PHOTO COURTESY OF JASON WATANABE.

February 19,2024

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on X

Smiling somewhere high above the intersection of Bloomfield Avenue and 183rd Street is Ethan Soriano, the former Cerritos High basketball player who passed away shortly before the season began. Also smiling is longtime Dons head coach Jonathan Watanabe, his team, everyone at the high school and the community.

That’s because the Dons reached a destination high school athletes dream of but a destination the program has never been to until now-the CIF-Southern Section Division 4AA championship game. Cerritos, the third-ranked team in the division which was once down by 13 points in the second quarter, had a strong second half and knocked off No. 10 Diamond Ranch High 68-61 last Friday. The Dons (21-10) will face Yeshiva University High of Los Angeles (YULA) for the division title. The Black Panthers, ranked 13th, upset top-ranked Price High 47-44 last Saturday.

“We’ve had…I don’t even know how to explain it in terms of the last year, it’s been unreal,” said Watanabe. “But we’re doing all of this for Sori. I had a feeling the other day it was so bittersweet that we would be advancing and thinking that Sori should be here experiencing this with us. But something hit me, and I said, ‘you know what, he is. He’s here going through all of it with us. He’s been with us the whole time.”

Watanabe added that it’s been a dream since he started coaching to get to the championship game. He’s attended those games every season, watching and hoping that the Dons would have the opportunity to compete in a championship game.

“It just feels amazing to me, to be on the first team in Cerritos [history] to make it to the finals,” said senior Shay Pema. “We came out here and we did our thing. Even though we were down 13 at one point, we kept doing what we knew we could and came back to win this game.”

“For the past two years, everyone has been saying Cerritos this, Cerritos that,” said senior Tobenna Ozoagu. “Going into last year, we were going to be third in the [605 League] or maybe not even make the playoffs. We took that personally and for the last two years, we just kept grinding. It’s just so surreal right now; I love all the guys on the court with me. We’re just doing it all for Sori.”

Cerritos, the champions of the 605 League, led for most of the first quarter and were up 9-2 nearly halfway through. But the Panthers chipped away and outscored the hosts 17-7 over the final 3:41 of the stanza. That momentum carried into the second quarter when Diamond Ranch, the second place team from the Valle Vista League, built a 32-19 advantage with 2:43 remaining in the half.

The Cerritos High boys basketball team celebrates after its 68-61 win over Diamond Ranch High last Friday in one CIF-Southern Section Division 4AA semifinal game. The Cerritos boys program advances to its first divisional championship game. PHOTO COURTESY OF JASON WATANABE.

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A lot of that can be attributed to Dylan Tran, who was nearly a one-man machine for the Panthers. He hit four three-pointers in the first quarter and two more in the second quarter on 50 percent shooting. However, in the second half, he was limited to seven points, no three-pointers and fouled out with 26.9 seconds to play.

“I know he’s a good shooter, but I wasn’t expecting that,” said Watanabe on Tran’s first half shooting. “We have [senior] Luke [Rigor] and [junior] Jaden Ribac clamp him down in the second half and that made a huge difference, and then the other guys played. We have some dogs here, so our guys stepped up.”

“This isn’t the first time this has happened,” said Ozoagu. “Coach has always planted in our heads that it doesn’t matter what the score is, just play possession by possession, get a stop or get a good shot. But Jaden Ribac came in and hit a big three. Shay Pema, the guy of tonight, hit a big three. we just have to play every possession by possession.”

Ribac and Pema nailed consecutive three-pointers in a span of 19 seconds to make it 32-25. The Dons would trail 34-28 at the break and continued their momentum burst in the third quarter on a 5-0 run early and an 8-0 run late.

“At the halftime speech, we knew that it all comes down to defense,” said Pema. “[Tran] had six threes in the first half and part of the reason why we were down so much. In the second half, we talked about fully denying him. We also weren’t getting the boards. We need to be more aggressive and want it more.”

With Diamond Ranch up 44-39, Pema completed a three-point play with 1:14 left in the third quarter. Then with 37 seconds remaining, he hit a three-pointer to put Cerritos back in front. That was followed by a pair of free throws from Ozoagu 20 seconds later. Pema, who had nine points in the first half, clutched up to score 11 points in the third quarter alone.

“I think that we started to attack the paint more, which allowed us to get more open shots around the perimeter,” said Pema. “When we had those open shots, I knew we weren’t going to hesitate to take them. We needed to do everything we could to get in this game and make sure we took this lead.”

“We didn’t rebound very well,” said Watanabe of the first half. “We had to do a better job of that if we wanted to finish this and get that last [game]. But we defended well enough to get the job done. And now when you get stops that opens up the offensive end. Toby was attacking, that made them collapse and Shay’s shots…we don’t really have an MVP. We have a lot of MVP’s on our team. “

The Panthers began the fourth quarter on a 9-2 run to take a 54-49 lead with 5:18 left in the game. However, the Cerritos defense clamped down and limited Diamond Ranch to three of eight shooting down then stretch. Meanwhile, Pema drained another long shot with five minutes left, then junior Benson Cho scored his only basket of the fourth quarter followed by a free throw from senior Osinachi Agaranna and another three-point play from Pema. Just like that, the Dons had a four-point lead with 2:59 remaining.

Pema, who scored 22 points three nights earlier in the quarterfinals at Highland High, tied a season best with 28 points with half of his 10 baskets coming from beyond the arc. He also had three steals. Cho and Ozoagu each scored 13 points with the latter adding 10 rebounds and eight assists. Ribac came up huge off the bench with 10 points and was the only non-starter to score.

“This is for all our players, coaches and families throughout the years,” said Watanabe. “This is a very special group. Don’t get me wrong, this is a very special group. But we built this. A lot of these guys are here because they came as young kids watching our guys play. This is not just for our current players.

“This is for former, current and any future players,” he continued. “But it’s just a family; that’s what it comes down to. I thank Mr. [Cerritos principal Patrick] for asking me to come back, because we wouldn’t be here right now. Two years ago, I was coaching freshmen ball and he asked me if I would come back [to varsity], and we started this whole mission last year. I told the guys it would be a two-year process.”

“Before I ever entered high school, the only thing I wanted to do in my high school career was win a CIF ring and now we have that chance next week,” said Pema. “This season has had its ups and downs and without Sori, this team just wasn’t the same. But everything we’ve done this season is for Sori. We want to win this ring for him and do everything we can to honor his memory and with the hard-working player he was.”

The game with YULA will be at 8:30 Saturday night at Edison High in Huntington Beach and will immediately follow the Cerritos girls Division 3AA championship game with Oak Park High, which is scheduled for 6:30.