Saturday at UC San Diego’s RIMAC Arena, six North Coast basketball teams were among the eight competing for four 2020 CIF championships in the top two divisions, Open and DI. Two, the Cathedral Catholic boys in the Open Division and the Santa Fe Christian boys in DI emerged victorious. Not quite the six-out-of-six the region registered a year ago (including DII), but still an impressive showing>
Below is a brief recap with photos from each of the of the four championship games along with comments from the head coaches of local teams.
BOYS OPEN DIVISION
Cathedral Catholic 59 Torrey Pines 51
For 16 minutes, it was vintage Torrey Pines basketball as the defending Open Division champions utilized their unselfish, team-oriented style to shape a 28-25 halftime edge. But in the second half, the size and strength of top-seeded Cathedral Catholic started to take its toll on the third-seeded Falcons. While securing the lead in the third quarter and eventually expanding it to nine midway through the fourth, the Cathedral defense was consistently stifling Torrey Pines. The win earned them their first Open title.
The Dons’ junior twin towers Obinna Anyanwu (6-7, 225) and Dillon Wilhite (6-9, 230) were tough to handle on both ends. Anyanwu, an inside-outside player who was regularly altering Falcon shots or keeping them from being taken, chalked up 18 points and six rebounds while Wilhite was nine-and-nine. On the defensive end, Torrey Pines’ 34% shooting from the field was testament to the duo’s impact.
Thomas Notarainni, a sturdy, 6-4, 200-pound two-guard contributed 16 markers, including two of Cathedral’s four treys.
Torrey, which had lost 58-51 to the Dons on December 23, boasted a 15-game winning streak entering the game, was coming off an impressive road triumph against two-seed St. Augustine and looked to become the first team to capture back-to-back Open banners. Senior Brandon Angel (16 pts./9 rebounds) and ascending talent, junior Chris Howell (12 pts./8 rebounds) certainly had their highlight moments but coming down the stretch, even they were having to grind to get any kind of quality shot.
Cathedral Catholic Head Coach Will Cunningham: “It feels great. Last year I thought we might have been able to slide into the Open bracket but we were the DI champions and had most of the guys from that team returning. We knew we were capable today but we also knew it was going to be tough because we were playing against such a quality, legendary-type program. When you think of Open-type teams, you think of teams like Torrey Pines, St. Augustine and Foothills—maybe we’ll be in that group now. We played three different styles of teams in the playoffs which I think showed we have the versatility you need to be a great team.
“We knew Torrey would play hard, aggressive and would make it a battle for sure. We didn’t expect anything less. We had a little stretch in the fourth where we could have opened it from eight to maybe 12 but we had a couple of turnovers.
“The key for us was to try to not give up lay-ups. We gave some up in the first half because I think we were probably a little excited. We were extended a lot and were chasing guys who were cutting around. So we talked about shrinking the floor, trying to keep guys in front of us as we matched up and then making them take tough twos. And then remembering who the main guys, Angel and Howell, were and seeing if any of their other guys could make plays. We have five guys averaging in double figures so we knew at some point, somebody, one or two of them, were going to start making plays in the second half—and that’s what happened.”
Torrey Pines Head Coach John Olive: “What kind of challenges does Cathedral Catholic present? Well, they’re really big, really physical and really talented. We struggled getting quality shots in the second half and that led to transition buckets for them. Their defense, in the second half particularly, was very good.
“You try to put Chris (Howell) and Brandon (Angel) in positions where the defense has to help and they can make plays for other people or if the defense doesn’t help make plays for themselves. Too many deflections and too many turnovers in the second half.
“Defensively, really, we did a pretty solid job. The outcome didn’t have anything to do with our defense, it was the offense.
“As a senior, Brandon has meant a great deal to our program. He has continued the culture of our program—hard work, honest about yourself, pride in what you do and competitive. That’s the kind of attitude we have built over years and years and years and Brandon exemplifies that.
“Chris got real comfortable as the year progressed. He’s real comfortable with the guys and real comfortable with the style of offense. I’ve had to make him a little more aggressive offensively because he’s a pass first player but he made great improvement this year.”
GIRLS OPEN DIVISION
La Jolla Country Day 54 Cathedral Catholic 37
When you’re facing the No. 1-ranked team in the country, there’s not a lot of room for error. Unfortunately for defending CIF Open champion and third-seeded Cathedral Catholic, they were short of perfect against the section’s top-ranked squad, La Jolla Country Day.
Actually a quick glance at the post-game stat sheet would lead one to believe it was a close game—until you came to the turnover column where the 23-8 differential in favor of the Torreys stood out like a proverbial sore thumb.
The turnovers and a little too much Te-hina Paopao conspired to do the Dons in. Paopao punctured the Cathedral defense for 26 points while snaring 13 rebounds and dishing out three assists—and that was with the Dons doing a respectable job defensively.
LJCD raced out of the gate to a 9-0 lead which Cathedral was able to quickly cut down to a manageable margin. The score was narrowed to 22-21 at intermission but the Dons, who took the Torreys to overtime in an early season clash, could never get even. The third quarter was a disastrous for Cathedral as they were outscored, 17-5, and were unable to get their offense to do enough to cut into the deficit.
Six-foot-three freshman Breya Cunningham (15) and junior point guard Jay Anousinh (11) scored in double digits for the Torreys. Nine of Cunningham’s points came in the first half and she was instrumental in LJCD’s initial burst. Isuneh “Ice” Brady, the Dons’ versatile 6-4 sophomore finished with 16 points and 13 boards.
Cathedral Catholic Head Coach Jackie Turpin: “Turnovers were a big difference, a lot of unforced errors on our part. Some of those were trying to make something happen, aggressive plays but we had too many moments of just not being on the same page, not getting the right people the ball in the right spots.
“Our game plan was to have somebody marked on Te-hina all the time, staying on her hip, and clogging up the lane. We did some good things there but we gave up too many offensive rebounds, didn’t clear enough space after a good defensive effort. They hit some big-time shots so credit to them. We’ve got to be better to beat a team like them. You’ve got to be sharp and certainly can’t turn it over that many times.
“When we got down 9-0, the thought was just focus on the defensive stuff. We showed some nerves but we knew we could stay with them defensively. It got away because we weren’t capitalizing on the other end. We struggled to get good shots and Ice has to touch the ball more than she did in the second half.
“I liked how we battled, especially that first quarter. I thought the kids were really working hard. Even when we got down, they were talking to each other, communicating, it felt like they had each other’s back and we’ve come a long way in that area—we just didn’t execute when it came to some of the stuff on the floor. But you saw the chemistry, that sisterhood.”
BOYS DIVISION I
Santa Fe Christian 71 Carlsbad 58
Relying on experience and hard-to-beat balance, Santa Fe Christian pulled away from a game Carlsbad squad in the second half of a game the featured two clubs with an incredibly high work rate. The No. 1-seeded Eagles, featuring three seniors and two juniors in their starting lineup, had that entire quintet reach double figures in the scoring column, shot 50.9% for the game, were +13 on the glass and racked up eight steals.
Senior Saagar Dhanjani posted a team high 15 points and fellow senior Sam Dudley got to the rim consistently, scoring 14 points to go with 11 rebounds. Junior Keatten Smith drained four treys on the way to 14 points while Alex Yphantides and Hayden Gray accounted for 12 and 11 points respectively.
The second-seeded Lancers never led after the first two minutes despite the 26-pt. effort of Cal State Monterey Bay recruit Jailen Nelson. Carlsbad, which won the CIF DII crown a year ago, was without 6-6 wing Caleb Nelson who missed the first half of the season recovering from a football injury and had to sit out the CIF Playoffs with a broken foot. A pair of sophomores, Toby Harris (12) and Mason Bowers (11) combined for 33 points.
For SFC, it was the third time reaching the DI summit in four years.
SFC Head Coach Chad Bickley: “I’ve never been through a year with more adversity (injuries) and I would guess that Carlsbad could say the same thing. It’s less about this team than the program and what we focus on. It’s not as much basketball as it is team. The basketball part of it, if you teach unselfishness, they’ll do the rest.
“Honoring what we do every single day, every single play. That’s what makes our program special and unique, year-in and year-out. Five guys in double figures today, that’s what I mean about a team. You take a guy like Saager (Dhanjani)—he had a tough time, weird match-up against San Marcos earlier this week then comes out here and it our leading scorer today. That’s what I tell our guys, it’s about a team, not about individuals. You figure that out and you’ll do some cool stuff.
“Our game plan with them was to get the ball out of Jailen’s (Nelson) hands. He does a lot when he has the ball and he brings it up. Even with two guys on him, he was able to create some pretty crazy shots—he’s done that all year. We just had to try to make it tough, that’s all we can do. If he’s hitting shots with a challenge, he’s just that good of a player.
“How our team pursued through adversity—I’m super proud of how they’ve handled that adversity and stuck with it.”
Carlsbad Head Coach Sam Eshelman: “When you put together a game plan, you realize they have three or four guys who all have the ability to put the ball on the floor, attack the basket, three or four guys who shoot the ball well and even their fifth and sixth and seventh guys play their butts off, get key offensive rebounds, put backs and get back defensively. There’s nobody you can take a break on.
“I think that’s the big separator for Santa Fe Christian. They’re tremendous basketball players and very well-coached.
If you were to go all the way back to July, we’ve dealt with a rash of injuries all season, even as recently as last two weeks. I’m so proud of the kids that competed on the floor tonight and everything that they gave. Some of them weren’t expecting to be there, even in the middle of the season. Our ability to morph and change and reach this pinnacle game in SD says a lot about who we have in the locker room.
In two years as a point guard, Jailen Nelson has changed our program, the culture of our program. He’s a guy who competes at a very high level and has grown as a leader. He has helped us reach new heights and build Carlsbad basketball back up to where we belong.
GIRLS DIVISION I
Serra 60 Mission Hills 58
With less than 10 seconds to go in regulation in the title game of Saturday’s CIF Division I tournament, the Mission Hills girls’ basketball team had the look of a team whose program pedigree included four CIF championships and seven consecutive finals appearances. Despite shooting an uncharacteristic 30.9% shooting from the field and turning the ball over 21 times, despite trailing by as much as 12 in the first half and 13 with under eight minutes to go, somehow, here were the youthful, top-seeded Grizzlies tied at 58 with No. 2 seed Serra and needing one stop to take a contest that once seemed lost into overtime.
But, a defensive breakdown allowed Serra’s Charisa Thomas to get loose and catch an upcourt pass that led to an uncontested lay-up. It spelled the end of a frustrating, albeit building, season for a Mission Hills team that had no seniors.
Serra, which created its advantage by pounding the ball inside, led virtually the entire game although the Grizzlies clawed back to within two at halftime and were able to taste the lead briefly when Gigi Israel nailed a three to open the second half. Guard Jessica Grant hit four from distance and paced Mission Hills with 17 points while Amber Schmidt recorded a double double, 14 points/12 boards and Kennan Ka chipped in with 13 points.
Mission Hills Head Coach Chris Kroesch: “We deserved to be in that position at the end, we made mental mistake after mental mistake. They are not a good shooting team and we let them get to the rim at will.
“I felt we had a lot of depth and our game plan was to wear them down but we were fouling a lot early, letting them catch their breath. Our pressure on the ball wasn’t very good, our rotation wasn’t very good and we seemed to be a step late a lot of the time—and you can’t be a step late against that team because they’ll have a lay-up.
“It’s good that we got to the championship game but the bottom line is we’ve got to get better—and we will. We’ve got to get better in a lot of areas.”