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CIF-SS DIV. 3AA GIRLS BASKETBALL CHAMPIONSHIP-Cerritos’ planned blackout turns into a White-out for Oak Park

Cerritos High senior Onyeka Nwanze takes one of her 20 shots as Lindsay Gould of Oak Park High defends her in last Saturday night’s CIF-Southern Section Division 3AA championship game. Oak Park won 71-41 as Nwanze led the Dons with 16 points. PHOTO BY JASON WATANABE.

February 26, 2024

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on X

HUNTINGTON BEACH-All week long at Cerritos High, the school was promoting its students, faculty and others to pack Edison High, the site of the two CIF-Southern Section basketball championship games involving the Dons. The school was also asking everyone to wear black for both the girls and boys games.

That was the easy part and was accomplished to the point that by the time the boys game started, it was standing room only. Unfortunately for the Cerritos girls, Delaney White of Oak Park High ruined the party as she scored 25 points, grabbed 12 rebounds, had six assists and three steals in helping her team to a 71-41 win over Cerritos in the Division 3AA title game last Saturday night.

“I think it was a hard fought game,” said Cerritos head coach Marcus Chinen. “We had a few mistakes in the very beginning; we hung with them for a little bit. Going through the first half, we were right there. I think if we would have made a couple more shots and [made] a few stops, I think the game would have been a little different.”

From left to right, Cerritos High principal Patrick Walker, seniors Onyyeka Nwanze, Mailee Dizon, Faith Lacorte, head coach Marcus Chinen, seniors Mia Rivera, Abby Hizon, Chloe Bonilla and ABC Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Gina Zietlow. PHOTO BY JASON WATANABE.

Oak Park, the defending Division 5A champions, also claimed a CIF title in 2001 and were finalists in 2012 and 2019 while the Dons fell to La Salle High 45-33 two seasons ago in the Division 3AA championship game, the only other time the black and gold had advanced to a divisional title game.

The game was tied three times in the first quarter and the Dons (23-10) had a one-point lead twice. But when White hit a pair of three throws with 14.7 seconds left in the stanza, it gave the Eagles the lead for good at 11-9. White was already off and running, scoring all but two points in the opening quarter. While Cerritos contained her a bit in the second quarter, it would be Lindsay Gould and Helena Koubek who dominated the next eight minutes, each scoring seven points as Oak Park, the top-ranked team in the division, began to pull away.

The Eagles opened the stanza on a seven-point run to make it 18-9. Then with 3:30 remaining in the half, Koubek converted a three-point play to increase the margin to nine points. By the time the half ended, the Dons found themselves down 32-19 and searching for answers as to how to come back in the game. Both teams shot 30.8 percent from the field in the half, but Oak Park was perfect on all eight free throws while the Dons were two of 11 from the free throw line. The Eagles were also owning the glass, outrebounding Cerritos 24-18.

“[I told them] stick with it; stick with the game plan,” said Chinen. “We weren’t going to change anything. We just needed to get stops. That’s a very good team. Their point guard is a very good point guard and I think had we executed a couple of more plays correctly, then again, it would have been a different game.”

Not making things better was the fact that, six-foot senior Onyeka Nwanze picked up her second foul at the 3:31 mark of the second quarter. Knowing that she couldn’t pick up another foul before halftime, she attempted just one more shot but still went into the locker room with half of the 18 boards.

“I just had to not play with the fear of having multiple fouls,” said Nwanze. “I just play hard and play for my team. If I just keep thinking about my fouls, then I’m going to foul out because that’s what’s going to be on my mind. I just know I have to give it my best because I’m a senior and this is going to be my last shot of a CIF [championship].”

The second half began the same way the second quarter did, with the Eagles scoring the first six points. Cerritos would break its scoring slump just before the five minute mark when sophomore Cameron Lacorte nailed her second long range shot. But that was quickly responded with a three-point play from White and a trifecta from Gould, making it 44-24 with 3:42 remaining in the quarter. Even though the Dons would go on their longest scoring streak of the game, thanks to a basket and free throw from Nwanze and a two-pointer from junior Ambar Multani, Chinen knew a 15-point deficit late in the quarter was going to be too much to overcome.

“I would say later in the third quarter, it was getting away from us,” said Chinen. “But then again, I was telling them we had to stick with the game plan. We still have to rebound, we still have to execute, we still have to play defense. Some of them had foul trouble, but they had to go and play through it.”

“I feel like we needed to keep our energy more up,” said Multani.

Staying with the déjà vu theme, Koubek scored the final points of the third quarter with 24.4 seconds left, then saw White add six points and Gould another three-pointer in the first three minutes of the fourth quarter, making it 57-31. Moments later, after a three-pointer from junior Miya Scammahorn, the Eagles went on their fourth run of the game, this one 7-0 and all coming from the free throw line.

“That was key for them; all those little runs, and we just couldn’t stop them,” said Chinen. “Again, we just had to tell the girls they couldn’t change anything on defense. They still had to play solid defense throughout those little runs.”

Koubek scored 15 points and had 15 rebounds while Maya Deshautelle and Gould added 14 and 13 points respectively. Nwanze led the Dons with 18 rebounds and 16 points but was seven of 20 shots from the field while Multani pitched in with nine points and seven boards. A lot of the missed shots from Nwanze were easy lay-ups under the baskets or missed offensive putbacks.

“It was a little disappointing, but I didn’t get frustrated,” said Nwanze. “I just knew that I had to keep myself level-headed and just keep going at it. They’re going to fall in if I keep trying hard.”

While the season isn’t quite done, as Cerritos visits Louisville High on Tuesday in the first round of the CIF Southern California Regionals, it is coming to a close for six seniors-Chloe Bonilla, Mailee Dizon, Abby Hizon, Faith Lacorte, Mia Rivera and Nwanze, Dizon and Rivera have been consistent starters, as is Nwanze, who was injured last season but managed to score over 1,000 points for her career.

“It’s been great playing at Cerritos,” said Nwanze. “The community is great, the parents make you feel like you’re part of the family, and it’s great to have that support. That’s why I always play my best every game because I know how many people are cheering me on. I hope I can continue to do that the last couple of games we have, and I hope I can pass on that spirit to the rest of the girls on the team.”

“She’s huge for the program, and hopefully people who look at that and say, ‘hey, I’ll be the next Onyeka; I’m the one who’s going to step in’,” said Chinen. “I know right now there’s big shoes to be filled. I hate to lose her, but I know that is the cycle and she’s going to have to go on. But I know she’s going to do good things in college.”

Multani, who also stands at six feet, figures to be the focal point in the rebounding department and has scored in double figures seven times. Cameron Lacorte also returns as a starter and the younger ones like juniors Kishan Saberon, Megan Wallace, Sophie Watanabe and Scammahorn, plus freshman Kalana Nguyen figure to be key components next season.

“I’m just ready to fill Onyeka’s shoes and I feel like I’ll really have to work hard during practices for next year and get that chemistry going,” said Multani.

Not to be forgotten from last Saturday night was the environment at Edison High. With Cerritos playing the rare championship game doubleheader at one location, over 75 percent of the gymnasium was decked out in black and gold, cheering on the Dons while the other 25 percent was relegated to the fans of Oak Park and for Yeshiva University of Los Angeles for the boys game.

“I think it’s incredible; I think it’s huge for these girls, huge for the program, the school and even the community,” said Chinen of making another appearance in the finals. “I believe three years in a row, we’ve had [an ABC Unified School District school] represent the championships in the CIF and hopefully we’ll be able to continue that next year.

“Next year is going to be a little different as far as how [the CIF-SS] is going to rank the teams,” said Chinen. “And we’re going to work really hard. We lose Mia and Mailee and Onyeka. It’s going to be tough replacing our seniors who are there every day at practice, encouraging our girls to try to get each other better. Now, we’re going to be leaning on our juniors and our sophomores, and even our little freshman. She came in and played a hell of a game too, tonight. And that’s impressive.”