After two sub-par seasons in 2018 and 2019, the Long Beach Poly girls basketball team is squarely back among the very best in California. If an earlier overtime win in December over Mater Dei of Santa Ana didn’t show that, the Jackrabbits surely did Monday night with a win over unbeaten No. 1 in the state and nation La Jolla Country Day in the title game of the So Cal Holiday Prep Classic.
Long Beach Poly knows what it feels like to wear the target on its back of being the top-ranked girls basketball team in the state, or even the country.
But the Jackrabbits weren’t concerned with the subjects of state and national rankings entering Monday’s showdown with No. 1 La Jolla Country Day in the Premier Division final of the 17th So Cal Holiday Prep Classic at Del Norte High.
Instead, Poly relished being in an underdog role on a big stage against the unbeaten Torreys, taking the opportunity to remind all California rivals that the Jackrabbits will start the new decade the same way they did the past one – as a legitimate CIF Southern Section and state championship contender.
Poly demonstrated again why it is arguably the state’s top defensive team, limiting Country Day’s talented tandem of senior Te-Hina Paopao and freshman Breya Cunningham each to one field goal in the second half in a 45-39 victory that halted the best start to a season in Torreys’ program history.
“We know that (Paopao) can get that team going at any second. She can get hot and go for three or four buckets in a row at any moment. That was the goal to not let that happen,” Jackrabbits coach Carl Buggs said. “Some other kids stepped up and hit some threes, but we didn’t want Paopao to get going or Cunningham. If anybody was going to beat us, let it be the other girls, not those two.”
With the victory, combined with Mater Dei of Santa Ana (13-2) winning the title in the top division at the West Coast Jamboree in Northern California over defending CIF Open Division state champ Sierra Canyon (12-3), Buggs himself may have to be dealing with having a No. 1 team in the state quite soon. Poly (10-2), which entered the tournament at No. 3, also owns a win over the No. 4 Monarchs and hasn’t lost to another team from California since its two setbacks (which came at the Nike TOC) were to Maryland opponents Riverdale Baptist and New Hope Academy.
Paopao, who entered the final averaging 24.3 points for the season, made Country Day’s first two field goals in the opening quarter. But the Oregon signee, also an all-tournament honoree, didn’t score again until she made a layup with 25 seconds remaining to cut the deficit to four, which was as close as the Torreys (16-1) got at any point during the second half.
“They were very aggressive and have athletic players. We left opportunities on the court and when we did have looks, we didn’t finish like we can,” said Paopao, who joined Cunningham as the first pair of Country Day players in program history to both score at least 30 points in the same game when they combined for 67 in an 89-47 pool-play victory Dec. 27 over Mission Hills.
“A combination of a poor shooting night and not being able to get offensive rebounds, so it didn’t go our way.”
Cunningham, who averaged more than 30 points per game during pool play, finished with 11 points and nine rebounds to earn all-tournament honors, but the 6-foot-3 forward didn’t score in the fourth quarter.
“Poly does a great job defensively. They don’t give you anything easy and we were rushing shots and some nights you have that, but we needed other people to step up. We didn’t shoot the ball very well today and that’s the name of the game,” said Country Day coach Terri Bamford, whose team elevated to No. 1 in the state and nationally following a 44-43 victory Dec. 21 over Sierra Canyon of Chatsworth in the Joe Smith Division final at the Nike Tournament of Champions in Arizona.
“They did a good job of doubling and tripling Breya and doubling Te-Hina, so we have to figure out how other people can step up and score. Te-Hina started the game out and she’s aggressive like that and normally those shots fall. You don’t want to take that away from her, but if it’s not working, then we’ve got to do something else. But you’re going to have games like that … more times than not, she’s great.”
Poly improved to 7-1 all-time against Country Day, including two victories against teams featuring Candice Wiggins in 2002 and 2003, along with a pair of wins in 2011 and 2012 against Torreys’ lineups led by Kelsey Plum.
It also marked the second time the Jackrabbits had knocked off an unbeaten Country Day team in a December tournament final, including a 50-48 overtime victory at the 2011 Oaks Christian Holiday Hardwood Invitational that resulted in the only loss of the season for a Torreys’ team that finished 32-1 – including a 10-point win 10 days earlier over Poly at Nike TOC – and captured the 2012 Division IV state title.
Buggs credited tournament MVP Kaci Scott for sparking the Jackrabbits’ defensive effort, which held Paopao scoreless for more than 25 minutes.
“I put on the board that she averages about 25 a game and I told Kaci, ‘You’re not coming out of the game unless you raise your hand. Your job is to neutralize her. She’s going to score some, but she’s all yours.’ Kaci said, ‘Coach, I got it.’ She just did a phenomenal job,” Buggs said. “We told them in the pre-game meeting, ‘They’re going to make runs because they’ve got kids who can score.’ But we had to find ways to overcome it. We wanted to make them earn everything.”
Scott had only three points, four rebounds and three blocks, but the senior’s tenacity and leadership set a significant tone for Poly, which scored the final six points of the first quarter and then produced another 10 unanswered points during a five-minute stretch spanning the second and third quarters that increased the lead to 32-17 early in the second half.
“We had a lot of pride. I knew they were coming in undefeated and we couldn’t let them score on us like that and let them come in feeling like they knew they were going to win, so we had to prove everybody wrong,” Scott said. “We felt like once (Paopao) scored her first few baskets, we couldn’t let her get into a flow, so we had to stop her early or else she was going to be on a roll. We’ve been talking a lot about how people have been doubting us a whole bunch just because we fell off for a few years. We fed off that a lot.”
Jazzy Anousinh, who made the winning basket with six seconds remaining against Sierra Canyon, scored five of her nine points in the third quarter to spark an 11-0 run for Country Day, which also included 3-pointers from Bobi Mack and Sumayah Sugapong. But the Jackrabbits responded with six straight points to regain momentum and stretched the lead to double figures again when all-tournament selection Nala Williams opened the fourth quarter with her fourth 3-pointer.
Williams led Poly with 12 points, including nine in the first half. Lily Buggs added 10 points and eight rebounds, with Cal State Fullerton commit Ashlee Lewis contributing 10 points and seven rebounds.
“I feel like we haven’t always shown it, but we can all shoot. We’re all good (players). I felt like it was going to come in at some point and it came in this game,” Williams said. “We just worked together well. We knew that we’ve got each other’s backs and we had to go and win for each other. We work hard every day in practice and we hold each other accountable for everything.”
Especially at the defensive end, where Poly held Country Day to 26 points under its season average. The Jackrabbits limited tournament opponents to 38 points per game – including a 29-28 win Dec. 27 against Etiwanda – an average that would have been even lower had Poly’s reserves not surrendered 22 fourth-quarter points Dec. 26 to Serra of Gardena in a 51-37 pool-play victory.
“I think we took a couple of steps this game to prove some things. Now, we’ve got to see if we can build on it,” Carl Buggs said. “This one is over with and we’re going to enjoy this and give them a couple of days off. But we’ve got Corona Centennial on Saturday and we’ve got Sierra Canyon in a couple of weeks because we want to play the best to be the best. We’ve got a long way to go, but this is a big win.”
Etiwanda 43, Rosary Academy 42
The Royals (11-8) rallied from an 11-point deficit with four minutes left, but the comeback effort by the reigning Division 1 state champions fell short in the Premier Division third-place game at Del Norte.
Nnenna Orji had 10 points and seven rebounds, all in the second half, for Etiwanda (10-3). All-tournament picks Joy Campbell and Cal Poly Pomona commit Breanna Ha both added six points for the Eagles.
San Diego State signee Asia Avinger, an all-tournament selection, led Rosary with 14 points and six steals. Nicole Rodriguez scored 12 second-half points, with all-tournament pick Kaylee Byon adding seven second-half points for the Royals, including a 3-pointer with 42 seconds left to close to within one.
In other division finals:
WNBA West Division
Roosevelt (Eastvale) 57, Fairmont Prep (Anaheim) 38: The Mustangs (13-4) scored the first 10 points and never looked back at Del Norte. Michelle Onyiah had eight points and seven rebounds to earn division MVP honors, with all-tournament selection Jaachi Nwanevu adding 15 points and seven rebounds for Roosevelt, which also received 15 points from Sydney Nelson as well as 12 points, five rebounds and five assists from Carlie Bolden. Mia Yamamoto scored 10 points and fellow all-tournament pick Milan Robinson contributed four points and five steals for Fairmont Prep (11-3).
WNBA East Division
San Clemente 58, JSerra (San Juan Capistrano) 54: The Lions (9-3) rallied from a 14-point, third-quarter deficit to tie the score at 54-54 with 1:06 left, but all-tournament selection Ella Gardiner scored four of her 16 points in the final 21 seconds to secure the title for the Tritons (14-1) at Del Norte. Jessie Blaine, an Auburn softball commit and member of the USA U-17 national team, was honored as division MVP after contributing 16 points and 18 rebounds for San Clemente. Hannah Nguyen scored 18 points, making six 3-pointers, and Alex Iemsisaneth added six points, five assists and five steals to both earn all-tournament recognition for JSerra.
NCAA West Division
Westview (San Diego) 73, Shadow Ridge (Nevada) 36: Ariana Williams was selected division MVP and Sarina Dacio earned all-tournament honors, both scoring 10 points for host Westview (14-1), which extended its winning streak to five in a row, including all four division victories by an average of 27 points. Sarina Shah led the Wolverines with 13 points.
NCAA East Division
Sandra Day O’Connor (Arizona) 39, San Marcos (San Marcos) 36: The Knights (9-4) cut a 12-point, third-quarter deficit to one on three occasions, but couldn’t complete the comeback at Del Norte. All-tournament selections Izzy Flores and Megan Roberts scored 14 and 10 points, respectively, for San Marcos. Paris Atauhene scored eight points to earn division MVP honors for the Eagles (14-1).
Sage Hill (Newport Beach) 62, El Camino (Oceanside) 57 OT: All-tournament pick Emily Elliott scored 31 points, including six in overtime, to help the Lightning (11-4) rally with the final seven points for the victory at Del Norte. Isabel Gomez added 20 points, scoring 18 in the second half and extra period, including a basket with 41 seconds left in regulation to tie the score at 50-50 and force overtime. Aliyah Anderson, an all-tournament honoree, led El Camino (9-5) with 22 points, including five in overtime.
Douglas (Nevada) 55, Vista 49: Despite 16 points from all-tournament selection Evelyn Terraza and 12 points from Katerina Sciacca, the Panthers (7-8) couldn’t protect an eight-point first-quarter lead at Del Norte and made just one second-quarter field goal against the Tigers (8-4), who traveled more than 500 miles from Minden, Nev.
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 the So Cal Holiday Prep Classic since the early 2000s.