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CIF-SS DIV. 4AA BOYS BASKETBALL CHAMPIONSHIP – Stars align for Cerritos on biggest stage in program’s history, brings home first championship

The Cerritos High boys basketball team, with head coach Jonathan Watanabe holding the plaque, won a divisional championship in the sport for the first time in school history. The Dons defeated Yeshiva University of Los Angeles 60-51 last Saturday night in the CIF-Southern Section Division 4AA championship game. Photo by Loren Kopff.

February 26, 2024

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

HUNTINGTON BEACH-In 1987, Hoosiers, a movie about a small-town Indiana basketball team that defied all odds to win the state championship, was released. While the 2023-2024 Cerritos High boys basketball team has 19 members, and the state playoffs begin on Tuesday, it felt like a Hollywood-script ending for the Dons last Saturday night.

Playing for senior Ethan Soriano, who passed away shortly before the regular season began a little over three months ago, Cerritos carved its way through the 605 League, then won all five games in the CIF-Southern Section Division 4AA playoffs, including a come from behind 60-51 win over Yeshiva University of Los Angeles (YULA) in front of a standing room only scene at Edison High. It is the first divisional championship for the Cerritos boys basketball program after the program had never been to the semifinals before Mar. 16. To make this win even more special is the fact that the Dons improved to 22-10 and Soriano’s uniform number is 22. The team will now take a trip down Interstate 5 to face University City High on Tuesday in the first round of the CIF Division III Southern California Regionals. The Centurions, seeded seventh for the regionals, defeated Rancho Buena Vista High 72-57 in the CIF-San Diego Section Division II title game. U.C., which is on a seven-game winning streak, is 24-8.

“Just all praise be to God,” said longtime Cerritos head coach Jonathan Watanabe. “We’re not here without him, and Sori is here with us. This is our 22nd win of the season. There’s no question… [we’ve won] 15 in a row; he was born on June 15. There are so many signs to tell us that he is here with us. This group deserves this. We’ve been through so much adversity…it’s nice to have this fairytale ending, but we’re still not done. We have state playoffs, but we will enjoy this one.

“But this one, as I said last week, is not just for our current players,” he continued. “This is for all our coaches, all our players, all our families who have helped to build all this. And most of them are here tonight. I talked to [former Cerritos head] coach [Ian] Desborough yesterday. So he knows exactly where we are. I’ll have some good news to tell him tomorrow when he wakes up. This is not just a one-year thing or not even just a two-year thing. This is a 53-year project that we’ve been working on to get here.”

The Dons, ranked third in the division, were facing a squad that was ranked 13th in the division and had upset top-ranked Price High 47-44 in the semifinals. YULA, a school not known as much in the southern past of Los Angeles County or Orange County, was founded in 1979.

Cerritos led once in the first half, and it came 20 seconds into the contest compliments from senior Tobenna Ozoagu with the assist coming from senior Luke Rigor. Other than the game being tied at 17-17 after junior Jaden Ribac hit a three-pointer, it would be a one or two possession game until Judah Robin’s basket with 1:49 left in the half made it 26-20. The Dons would trail 29-23 at the half, but felt they were in a good spot, considering they have seen this script before.

Cerritos High senior Tobenna Ozoagu drives to the basket in last Saturday night’s CIF-Southern Section Division 4AA championship game against Yeshiva University of Los Angeles. Held to four points in the first half, Ozoagu ended the contest with 16 points and had five assists.

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“Oh, they’re good,” said Watanabe. “They got here for a reason. They play good offense; their defense is exceptional. They’re probably the best defensive team we’ve played all year. So, we had a lot to handle, but we were able to fight through it.”

“We didn’t know YULA before this,” said Ozoagu. “But hey, they’re a hell of a team. They’re in the finals for a reason. I have to give all props to them.”

The halftime statistics weren’t looking dandy for Cerritos as it shot 25 percent from the field and had a dozen rebounds while the Panthers were 13 of 27 from the field and had grabbed 21 boards. The Cerritos starters combined to go four of 21 from the field.

“Obviously it’s frustrating when my shots aren’t going in when I’m getting to my spots,” said Ozoagu. “But it goes back to a team effort. [Senior] Shay [Pema] turned it up in the third quarter and we just chipped away. We just played together and that’s what we do as a team. It’s not a one-man team; not like these other team. We’re a whole team.”

YULA increased its lead to a game-high eight points with nearly five minutes gone in the third quarter before the Cerritos defense took control of the game. Over the final 2:15 of the stanza, the Dons went on a 10-0 run as Pema scored the first 9 points, including a pair of three-pointers. The Panthers would attempt just three shots during this time as Cerritos led 37-35 heading into the fourth quarter.

“We’ve been doing it all year,” said Watanabe. “We’ve been playing playoff basketball since two years ago, game one. I told these guys we have to play this [way] so when we get to the playoffs, it’s the exact same thing. So we’re just out here playing ball. I think we’ve been down in almost every one of these games, and in then in the third quarter, we’re able to make some adjustments and then grind it out.”

YULA would score the first four points of the fourth quarter before the Dons responded with three free throws to take a 40-39 lead with 5:53 remaining. Alex Gabbay would then make one of two free throws 12 seconds later before the Dons went on a 13-2 run to put the game out of reach. Ozoagu would score six of those 13 points. The final five points of the run came from Pema, first a steal and basket, then he took a pass from Ozoagu and scored, was fouled and hit the subsequent free throw.

The Panthers tried to get back in the game but could only get five free throws in nearly a minute and a half to trail 53-47 with 1:33 left to play. But a three-pointer from junior Benson Cho 11 seconds later sealed the deal. In the second half, Cerritos was nine of 21 from the field while YULA was seven of 21 and while the Panthers were three of 13 from beyond the arc, the Dons connected on eight long range shots in 23 attempts.

“It goes back to what Coach Wat says, play possession by possession,” said Ozoagu. “As soon as the jitters went away, we played our game and played defense.”

Gabbay led the Panthers with 15 points while Yishai Rosenblatt added 11 points and eight rebounds. Jaden Azeroual led his team with 10 rebounds. For the Dons, Pema had 17 points, five rebounds and two steals, Ozoagu had 16 points and five assists and Cho pitched in with 14 points and half a dozen boards.

“We have a lot of guys,” said Watanabe. “We have all our pieces that fit well together. The thing about our team is that we’re so unselfish. All our guys feed off each other, so Toby will drive it, kick it out to Shay and Shay will knock down the shots. You have [senior] Osi [Agaranna] scoring inside, Benson slashes to the bucket, Luke can rebound and knock down shots. It is a whole team effort and I think that’s probably the reason why we’re here.”

Cerritos High senior Tobenna Ozoagu shoots over Jaden Azeroual of Yeshiva University of Los Angeles in last Saturday night’s CIF-Southern Section Division 4AA championship game. Cerritos won 60-51 as Ozoagu had 16 points and five assists. PHOTO BY JASON WATANABE.

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“This is what we play for,” said Ozoagu. “This is what I do all that for. This is what we spend hours in the gym for; hours in the weightroom, for this championship right here. This cements us in history. Like I said before, it’s all for Sori. I just feel great. To see the love and the amount of people here…there’s no better feeling.”

The Edison gymnasium was nearly packed for the Cerritos girls game against Oak Park High for the Division 3AA championship prior to the boys. Cerritos occupied just about four sections of the bleachers and when the girls game concluded, the YULA fan base, which was big for a school of nearly 500 students, packed the other two sections, more than Oak Park did, and were singing, chanting and waving the Israeli flag at times.

“It was unbelievable,” said Watanabe. “The fan support was awesome. It was awesome for the semifinal game, and I didn’t expect anything different [tonight]. It sold out on the second day. Our parents were calling me going,’ coach, the game is sold out and I didn’t get my tickets yet’. Luckily, they were able to open up more seats. I don’t know how many people were here, but it felt like the whole school was here, plus all our alumni and coaches. It was a great environment to play in.”