It’s a coming out party for freshman center Breya Cunningham plus a feel-good triumph for senior guard Te-Hina Paopao, but it took a layup with six seconds left by Jazzy Anousinh to give state No. 2 La Jolla Country Day a one-point win over state No. 1 Sierra Canyon in the championship game of the top division at the most prestigious girls basketball tourney in the nation. State No. 5 Archbishop Mitty wound up fourth in the same division, but California teams won a total of four titles, including three from the CIF San Diego Section in high divisions.
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For Te-Hina Paopao, it was the starring role on a big stage she had desired her entire high school basketball career.
For Breya Cunningham, it was the opportunity for a rising young talent to command the spotlight in front of a national audience for the first of many occasions at La Jolla Country Day.
And for Jazzy Anousinh, it was another chance to deliver a brilliant final act at the Nike Tournament of Champions.
It all added up to the Torreys taking home the prestigious Joe Smith Division title for the first time in program history Saturday with a 44-43 victory over Sierra Canyon of Chatsworth.
In an early showdown of the state’s top two ranked teams, Anousinh made the winning layup with six seconds remaining to lift No. 2 Country Day (13-0) over top-ranked Sierra Canyon (10-2) at Desert Vista High, highlighting a day when three San Diego Section teams – including Cathedral Catholic and Christian of El Cajon – captured division championships in Arizona.
“I knew that they would not let Te-Hina or Breya get the ball and I just saw an opening and I went. I knew that they would stick their best defenders on Te-Hina and I knew that I’m just as good competing with her in practice and she makes me a lot better, so I just had to be confident,” said Anousinh, who scored the final two baskets for the Torreys during the last two minutes that saw four lead changes.
“Being on this stage with everyone here today and getting to play in such a tough game with really good competition, we were playing the best of the best and there’s no better feeling than that. I’m honestly feeling on top of the world right now.”
It was not the first time Anousinh had come through in the clutch at the Nike TOC, as she was selected most outstanding player of the Dan Wiley Division last season, when the Torreys prevailed 48-44 in the final over Campbell High from Georgia, despite competing without an injured Paopao for the entire tournament.
Nor was it the only occasion this season when the junior guard produced heroics for Country Day, hitting the winning 3-pointer Dec. 13 in a 66-63 double-overtime victory over Cathedral Catholic.
“Cathedral was a very tough game against one of our rivals with my whole school there, so all of my friends were there, but I think this one was something else,” Anousinh said. “It means a lot to us. It is Te-Hina’s first TOC and it was a very memorable game. They’re both really good, but I think this one might take the cake.”
After Alexis Mark put Sierra Canyon ahead 43-42 on a layup with 18 seconds remaining, the reigning Open Division state champion Trailblazers focused their defense on keeping the ball away from Paopao and denying a post entry to the 6-foot-3 freshman Cunningham.
That created a driving lane for Anousinh, who took advantage of the open space to score near the right block, before a desperation shot by Sierra Canyon from beyond half court fell short as time expired.
“Me and Jazzy have been through thick and thin. We’ve played over five years now, so we’ve been together for a while. I have tremendous confidence in her. She can handle the ball, she can shoot the ball, she’s my right-hand man and I can depend on her whenever I need her,” Paopao said. “She brings up the ball and she takes a lot of the load off my shoulders, so I’m very appreciative of her.”
Sierra Canyon took turns defending Paopao with Duke-bound Vanessa DeJesus, Texas commit Ashley Chevalier and the Boise State signee Mark, limiting the Oregon-bound guard to just one second-half field goal. But Paopao finished with 13 points and five rebounds to earn the tournament’s most outstanding player honors, leading the Torreys with 84 points during the four-game schedule.
“It’s really special. I was able to come in for my first TOC and also my last one and go out with a bang,” Paopao said. “It’s an amazing opportunity and it’s very humbling and very exciting and I’m really glad that the Lady Torreys got the championship. It was a real blessing to be here and I’m very grateful.”
Although Sierra Canyon received 13 points and four steals from Chevalier along with 11 points and five rebounds from DeJesus as both athletes earned all-tournament recognition, the Trailblazers’ front line had no answer for Cunningham, who carried Country Day in the second half.
“She was everything we thought she was going to be. She’s just got too much good size for our post defenders. She’s a really exceptional player,” Sierra Canyon coach Alicia Komaki said. “The game plan was to try to stop both of them and to limit everybody else. We stopped one and we were able to limit everybody else, but we didn’t stop her.”
Cunningham scored 13 of her 19 points and grabbed six of her 10 rebounds in the final 16 minutes to achieve her eighth double-double after accumulating 20 points and 12 rebounds, despite battling second-half foul trouble, in a 62-54 semifinal win Friday over Archbishop Mitty of San Jose.
“It means a lot to me because I know they’re looking to me for my defense because I’m the tallest person on the team, so when I’m not in, they’re having to scramble a lot because there are a lot of mismatches,” said Cunningham, who earned all-tournament honors.
“I feel like even if I’m not scoring, as long as I’m rebounding and keeping my hands straight up and trying not to foul, then at least I’m doing something for the team. I just try to take it one play at a time. I just try to do what I can on that one play and hope it pays off.”
Following Mark’s go-ahead basket, Komaki debated on whether to call timeout to allow Sierra Canyon to set its defense, but with the Trailblazers having won their previous three tournament games all by single-digit margins, she elected to let the final possession unfold without disruption.
“They execute their stuff so well and they have one of the best players in the country on their team, so I thought about calling a timeout,” Komaki said. “But I like scramble mode after something like that when it’s a little helter skelter. Unfortunately, this time the helter skelter went in their favor.”
Country Day coach Terri Bamford, whose team won its ninth consecutive game at Nike TOC since 2017, relied on the veteran experience of her lineup to prevail once more in a championship setting.
“Sometimes kids get overwhelmed on a stage like this or they’re looking too far ahead, so I just kept telling them to take it one possession at a time and to make one more play and they’ve really bought into that. I’m so proud of them. It takes a lot to come and perform four days in a row at this level,” Bamford said. “I have four seniors and it makes a difference. They’ve been together for four years and they’ve had to battle a lot without (Te-Hina) and I’ve asked them to guard bigs when we’re really small. When you get seniors like this, the light just clicks. They understand their roles and they understand what they need to do to win and they’re great leaders for our team when it comes to mentoring the younger kids, so it’s just special.”
Although Bamford has won four CIF state championships during her 22-year tenure at Country Day, in addition to capturing four division titles at Nike TOC in the past 11 seasons, Saturday ranked among the most memorable accomplishments of her coaching career.
“This is so special,” said Bamford, who led the Torreys to the Orange Division championship in 2009 and the John Anderson Division title in 2011 before capturing the Dan Wiley Division crown last season.
“We’ve had a lot of good teams and some years, I thought we should have been there (in the top division), but we got our opportunity and it feels really good. It’s surreal, actually, because this tournament is considered the best high school tournament in the country.”
It was also a historic achievement both for Bamford and Komaki, as Saturday’s final marked the first time in the 23-year history of Nike TOC that two female coaches squared off in the championship game of the top division. It also marked the third year in a row that a female coach guided her team to the top division final in Arizona, with Windward of Los Angeles’ Vanessa Nygaard last season and Archbishop Mitty’s Sue Phillips in 2017.
“I know that I’m a good coach and Terri is a good coach and Vanessa is a great coach and Sue is a great coach. There are a lot of great women coaches out there,” said Komaki, who has won four state championships in the past seven seasons.
“It’s fantastic and I think it’s a great milestone for women, especially the two coaching in this championship game. But for me, and I think it’s the same with Terri, we know we’re good coaches – period. We’ll hang our hat on that.”
Although Country Day and Sierra Canyon produced the sixth all-California matchup in the top division in Nike TOC history, both coaches indicated it was much too soon to think about a potential rematch in March in the Open Division of the Southern California Regional playoffs.
Sierra Canyon returns to competition Dec. 27 in the first round of the Platinum Division at the West Coast Jamboree against Cardinal Newman of Santa Rosa. Country Day plays Clovis West to open pool play Dec. 26 at the So Cal Holiday Prep Classic in San Diego.
“I’m proud of the things that we always do, which is play hard and play the right way, but we’ve really got to clean some things up offensively and defensively,” Komaki said. “I actually don’t think we’re playing very well right now. It’s hard, because I have certain expectations for our team and we’ve never been on a national stage, so we come here and we say that we’re doing pretty good because we’re beating nationally ranked teams. I just think we can be so much better than what we’ve showed because we’re not playing our best basketball right now. We have a really tough schedule, so if we don’t start to do some things differently and figure some things out, it could be a rough January, which is not what we want to have happen.”
Riverdale Baptist (Maryland) 58, Archbishop Mitty (San Jose) 51: The Monarchs (6-2) surrendered the first 11 points and never recovered, suffering their second straight loss after six consecutive victories to open the season.
Olivia Williams had 17 points and five rebounds for Mitty, which trailed by as many as 14 in the first half.
The Monarchs (No. 5 in the state entering the week) had overcome double-digit deficits in their first two games to prevail 58-57 against Miami Country Day in Wednesday’s opener, followed by a 71-70 overtime victory Thursday against Las Vegas Centennial.
But late rallies against La Jolla Country Day in Friday’s semifinals, as well as against Riverdale Baptist, came up short. Ashley Hiraki, an all-tournament selection, had nine points and three steals for Mitty.
Elizabeth Martino, a Rutgers signee, led Riverdale Baptist (9-1) with 11 points and all-tournament selection Kaylah Ivey, a Cornell commit, scored eight points for the Lady Crusaders.
More Nike TOC Title Games
John Anderson Division
Elizabeth Seton (Maryland) 43, Windward (Los Angeles) 40: For the second year in a row, the Wildcats endured a heartbreaking setback in a division final, following a 52-51 loss to Miami Country Day in the Clare Droesch championship game last season.
Windward (9-3) cut a five-point deficit to 41-40 with 58 seconds remaining, rallying behind a 3-pointer from Madeleine Doi and a free throw from Ally Lopez. But all-tournament honorees Tyler Gray and Regina Walton both made free throws in the final 25 seconds for the Roadrunners (9-2) to secure the victory after a desperation 3-point attempt by Windward from the top of the key missed at the buzzer.
Walton had 11 points and Gray, the division’s most outstanding player, contributed nine points and four steals for Elizabeth Seton, which won its final three games by a combined 13 points.
Michelle Duchemin had 15 points and 13 rebounds to earn all-tournament recognition for Windward, along with freshman JuJu Watkins, who added nine points and 12 rebounds.
Watkins, the Wildcats’ leading scorer averaging 22 points through their first three contests, was held without a field goal in the first half of the final after accumulating 21 points, seven rebounds and four blocks in a 63-60 victory Friday over Clovis North. Duchemin had 23 points and 17 rebounds for Windward in the semifinal win.
McKayla Williams, a Gonzaga commit, added 11 points Saturday for Windward, which hasn’t won a division title at Nike TOC since capturing the John Anderson championship in 2012.
Clovis North 55, St. Mary’s (Stockton) 54: Laney Amundsen scored the winning layup with one second left to cap the Broncos’ 9-0 run in the final two minutes in a stunning comeback victory at Desert Vista High.
Amundsen finished with 11 points for Clovis North (11-2), which endured a scoreless stretch of more than five minutes in the second half.
Long Beach State signee Savannah Tucker, the tournament’s overall leading scorer with 115 points in four games, contributed six points in a 16-second span down the stretch to help Clovis North cut a 54-47 deficit to one point with 1:30 remaining.
Tucker, an all-tournament selection who had 24 points in the first half, finished with 31 despite being held the entire third quarter without a field goal. She scored 35, including the team’s first 20 points, in a 56-55 victory Thursday over Cicero-North Syracuse of New York.
Amaya Oliver, who had only two points in a 55-47 semifinal loss Friday to Elizabeth Seton, rebounded with 14 points and 12 rebounds Saturday to earn all-tournament honors. Tai Sherman added 11 points and four steals for St. Mary’s (7-3).
Mike Desper Division
Cathedral Catholic (San Diego) 60, Fremont (Nebraska) 53: Isuneh “Ice” Brady led three Dons (6-4) in double figures with 18 points and 11 rebounds to earn the division’s most outstanding player recognition at Desert Vista High.
Taryn Johnson contributed 13 points and 10 rebounds for Cathedral Catholic, which trailed only once in the game at 25-23 in the second quarter, before rallying to grab a five-point halftime advantage, which it maintained throughout the second half.
Itzel Navarro added 12 points and five assists for the Dons, who lost four of their first six games by a combined 11 points, before winning all four tournament contests by an average of 15.5 points.
Taylor McCabe, the tournament’s fourth-leading scorer with 102 points overall, kept Fremont (8-1) within striking distance early with 17 first-half points. But the sophomore guard managed only one second-half field goal and finished with 23 points for the Tigers, who rallied from an 11-point, fourth-quarter deficit in Friday’s semifinals to edge Lynwood of Los Angeles 59-56.
Dan Wiley Division
Christian (El Cajon) 68, St. Paul (Santa Fe Springs) 24: After suffering a 32-point loss to Oak Ridge (Tennessee) in the Mike Desper Division final last season, the Patriots (6-2) rebounded with a dominant run to the championship, limiting St. Paul (14-2) to one second-half field goal at Tempe High.
Simone James, who finished with the tournament’s second-highest point total at 107 in four games, matched the scoring output of the Swordsmen by herself with 24 points to earn the division’s most outstanding player honors. James had 35 points in a 60-58 victory Thursday against Omaha Westside (Nebraska).
Allie Carreon added 17 points for Christian, which won its fifth consecutive game overall. Victoria Carle contributed seven points for St. Paul, which was outscored 32-5 in the second half.
Derrill Kipp Division
Marlborough (Los Angeles) 29, Huntington Beach 25: For the third time in four tournament games, the Mustangs (7-1) held an opponent under 30 points, limiting the Oilers (7-4) to a pair of fourth-quarter field goals after the teams were tied at 20-20 following the first 24 minutes at Tempe High.
Parker Montgomery, who led Marlborough with a combined 66 points in their first three contests, scored only eight in the final, but was still selected the division’s most outstanding player.
Erin Yoshitake had nine points and Catherine Or added seven points for the Mustangs, who have won five in a row overall. Alyssa Real scored 14 points to lead Huntington Beach.
Erik Boal has covered high school sports in California for 25 years, formerly serving as editor at the Glendale News-Press and Los Angeles Daily News. He is currently the editor for DyeStat.com and RunnerSpace.com, which focus on track and field, cross country and road racing, but has been a regular attendee at major Southern California high school sports events and Nike TOC since the early 2000s.
Great article! Savannah Tucker of Clovis North is on quite a scoring roll, one we haven’t seen in the Central Section in a long time.