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CIF STATE SOCAL GIRLS BASKETBALL DIV. II REGIONALS – Cerritos fades to Notre Dame/Sherman Oaks in final minutes, ending one of its best seasons

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By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on X

SHERMAN OAKS-In a game that saw the lead change hands eight times through the first three quarters, the Cerritos High girls basketball team made a valiant effort to come back from an 11-point deficit late in the third quarter. But trailing by a point with 3:50 left in the game, Notre Dame High of Sherman Oaks took advantage of a technical foul called on the Cerritos bench, scored four straight points in less than 10 seconds and went on to defeat the Dons 71-60 last Thursday night in a second round game of the CIF State Southern California Division II Regionals.

Cerritos, seeded 15th in the regionals, had upset No. 2 Louisville High 47-44 just two nights prior and gave the 10th-seeded Knights all it could handle despite never leading by more than three points after the opening quarter. The Dons conclude the season at 24-11, the most victories in the program since the 2017-2018 team went 24-5. No other Cerritos girls basketball team has won 25 games, and this was also the farthest any Cerritos girls basketball team had gone in the state playoffs.

“We had a gameplan as far as being confident,” said Cerritos head coach Marcus Chinen. “We knew that if we played our game, we would be fine. Again, it’s one of those games where we had to keep telling the girls, ‘do not let the referees dictate how you play’. There were some questionable calls there. But it’s kind of hard when you’re getting fouled a little bit and then you’re not getting some calls. There’s nothing we can do; we just have to let them play.

“I think they did play through it and played as tough as they could,” he continued. “If they had to end the game right where it was, it wouldn’t be 11 points. But they played hard. I’m very, very, very proud of this team.”

A pair of free throws from Peyton Chalmers with 1:41 left in the third quarter put the Knights up 49-39 before Cerritos closed out the stanza on a 6-3 run, then got a three-pointer from sophomore Cameron Lacorte to begin the fourth quarter, making it a 52-47 contest. With Notre Dame now up 55-50, senior Onyeka Nwanze scored four straight points to make it a one-point game.

But after senior Mia Rivera was called for her third foul, the Cerritos bench was assessed a technical foul, where Amia Witt sank both free throws, then Raegan Davis scored on the ensuing possession, making it 59-54. After that, the Dons would not get closer than three points, which happened on two occasions. The Cerritos coaching staff had been warned numerous times throughout the game to sit down instead of emphatically jumping up to complain about a call.

“I think it was because of our frustration,” said Chinen on the technical foul. “We got a little frustrated because it wasn’t just them fouling us. We were fouling them, too. But to be a great team, you have to play through things like that.”

After Natalie Villamor opened the game’s scoring just 33 seconds into the contest, Cerritos scored the next nine points, the first five from Nwanze and the next four from junior Ambar Multani. That would be flowed by 11 straight by Notre Dame, including the first three of the second quarter on the first of six three-pointers from Villamor.

The largest lead for the Knights in the stanza would be six points as the Dons continued to chip away, taking a one-point lead on a three-pointer from junior Kishan Saberon with 4:40 left in the half and another one-point lead with 1:12 left in the half on a basket from freshman Jordin Pulley off a steal and assist from Rivera. The Dons then took their last lead of the game with 22.7 seconds left in the half when Pulley scored off an offensive rebound.

Nwanze scored 11 seconds into the second half, but Villamor tied the game at the 7:00 mark with a three-pointer and put her team in the lead for good with another basket from beyond the arc a minute later. Those two baskets would be part of 15-5 run as the Knights took a 44-34 lead late in the third quarter.

Still, the game wasn’t quite over when Lacorte sank two of three free throws with 1:35 left in the game, making it 64-60. But Cerritos would attempt just three shots over the final 95 seconds as Notre Dame closed the game on a 7-0 run.

“It was just chip away, chip away and that’s what we had said from the very beginning,” said Chinen. “In some of the games that we were down during the [regular] season, they believed in it. It’s just that we weren’t able to get over that hump [tonight].”

Villamor led the hosts with 21 points while Witt added 19 points and seven rebounds and Riley Mann another 10 points. For the Dons, Nwanze poured in a game-high 24 points and 20 rebounds while Saberon had 10 of her season-high 13 points in the third quarter, one off her career-high and Pulley had all seven of her career-high in points in the second quarter. And while she didn’t score for the third time this season, Rivera had seven assists, four rebounds and four steals.

“That was huge; that was huge for us tonight,” said Chinen of Pulley and Saberon. “I think that gave us a little bit of energy, a little bit of life. That’s the reason why we carry 15 girls for the season. A lot of coaches would say, ideally 10-12 girls, but we need…a full team because you never know what may happen. Tonight was a great night to see what our future will be like with the likes of Jordin and [freshman] Kalana [Nguyen] and some of the young ones that came in and stepped up.”

This was the final game for Nwanze, Rivera, Chloe Bonilla, Mailee Dizon, Abby Hizon and Faith Lacorte as all six will be graduating in June. The biggest loss will be the six-foot Nwanze, who has been on varsity all four years, but missed all of last season due to an injury. Still, she was able to score over 1,250 points for her Cerritos career, nearly half of that this past season. Had she not been injured last season, there might have been a chance Nwanze would have left as the school’s all-time scoring leader. Shannon Perry (1990-1994) is the leader with 1,879 points, followed by Amy Hughlett (1988-1992) with 1,333 points, and Sherilyn Frazier (1992-1996) with 1,312 points.

“You can’t ask for anymore from her,” said Chinen of Nwanze’s performance. “She gave it her all. I know sometimes she would look at me and tell me, ‘they’re not calling anything’. But we would tell her she had to power through it and go through it and hopefully [the refs] would call something. They started calling a few of them.

“It’s going to be hard to replace her,” he continued. “It’s going to be hard to replace Mia. It’s going to be hard to replace Mailee. By looking at that, we have to go back to work.”