This is one of two inside looks at the leading seniors from the Class of 2021 who would have to be the top senior contenders to be Ms. Basketball State Player of the Year. They will be teammates soon at Stanford, which will be playing in the Final Four on Friday in San Antonio. Go inside for more about the amazing Kiki Iriafen from Harvard-Westlake of Studio City. For feature on Santa Ana Mater Dei’s Brooke Demetre, CLICK HERE.
Note: Yes, we know that a non-senior could also wind up being named Ms. Basketball State Player of the Year for the 2021 season. The other two leading contenders were freshmen in 2020 — Breya Cunningham of La Jolla Country Day and Juju Watkins of Los Angeles Windward. Both of them will be profiled later as well.
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With the start of an abbreviated kind of season this spring in some CIF sections now that the state has relaxed the protocols, there will be indoor sports in Season 2 of the CIF calendar. As a result, Cal-Hi Sports won’t be taking the year off either in naming its statewide award winners in both girls and boys basketball.
It might not be an exact science since at this point in some counties and school districts it’s not yet known how many games teams will be able to play or whether they’ll be able to play outside their leagues or counties.
Those facts, however, do not change who would rank as the top returning girls players in the state based on last season’s accomplishments. So, whether a team will get to play 10 games, 12 games or whatever they’re allowed to schedule, it won’t change who the top candidates for Ms. Basketball State Player of the Year are at the start of what will be a shortened season.
As a result, we thought we would give readers a profile of the top candidates for the top girls hoops honor in the state, and the natural place to start is with Okikiola “Kiki” Iriafen, the 2020 State Junior of the Year, from Harvard-Westlake of Studio City.
The 6-foot-3 Stanford-bound Iriafen is the ESPNw No. 19 rated senior in the nation and No. 2 rated recruit in California after Brooke Demetre, the Mater Dei (Santa Ana) star she will join at Stanford this fall who she barely edged out for top junior honors last season. The two future Cardinals have gone back and forth for individual honors the past three seasons with Iriafen beating out Demetre for State Freshman of the Year in 2018 and then getting edged out herself by Demetre for State Sophomore of the Year in 2019.
One thing that Kiki has over every other player in the state this year, including Demetre, is that she has been an All State First Team selection in each of her first three years.
Iriafen could be called the ultimate double-double machine since she has averaged a double-double all three seasons and in doing so increased her production each season both in scoring and rebounding.
After going for 17.0 points and 10.8 rebounds as a freshman, and then 19.8 points and 13.4 rebounds in her sophomore year, this past season Iriafen averaged 23.5 points and 15.1 rebounds per game and shot 58 percent from the field. She also led the team in steals and blocked shots.
Iriafen had 27 double-doubles in a 25-9 season that ended in a 59-56 loss on the road in San Diego at Cathedral Catholic in the CIF Southern Regional Division I title game. Kiki was a little under her average that day but she still posted her final double-double of the season after finishing with 17 points and 12 rebounds.
In 34 games last season, Iriafen had 25 or more points 14 times and 30 or more five times with a high of 37 points (18 rebounds) in a 58-56 victory against a solid West of Torrance. One of her top performances came in the CIF Southern Section Division I title game 55-42 victory over Troy of Fullerton when Iriafen went for 25 points and 17 rebounds.
On the glass, Kiki had 14 or more rebounds 22 times and 20 or more rebounds four times, including 21 with 33 points in a 69-68 loss to Arkansas power Conway at a tournament in Texas, 24 in an early season win over Troy, 26 in a win over Clovis North of Fresno, and a season-high 27 in a win over Lawndale Leuzinger.
Besides her Cal-Hi Sports honors last season, Iriafen was named both the CIF Southern Section Division I and the Los Angeles Daily News Player of the Year.
The chance of getting to the 2,500 points and 1,500 rebound marks for her career are pretty much out the window with the pandemic curtailing the number of games teams will be able to play, but she enters the season with 1,932 points and 1,260 rebounds so it’s pretty much a slam dunk she’ll get to 2,000 points and 1,300 rebounds even if it’s just in a handful of games.
One of the more amazing facts about Iriafen is that she didn’t have much interest in basketball in her youth, and in fact didn’t really start playing the game until just a few months before her freshman season.
She has since changed her mind and wants to study computer science and engineering at Stanford, but prior to high school Iriafen was focused on her studies with a goal of a career in medicine.
“I played a little in eighth grade but before then I was always interested in becoming a doctor. That was my goal,” Iriafen said. “I really didn’t do much in athletics or other activities other than student body government.”
That all changed when Harvard-Westlake head coach Melissa Hearlihy called us just after the start of the 2017-2018 season, raved about Kiki despite saying she was raw as a player, and told us she was coming to Northern California to play in the St. Mary’s MLK Showcase in January in Stockton.
As has been the case for many years, we were planning on covering the event, but after Hearlihy’s enthusiasm about Iriafen and the fact Harvard-Westlake was a preseason No. 8 ranked team (and at the time we didn’t even know about or have Kiki in the write-up) just made her showing even better.
Our first recollection of Iriafen was as a 6-foot-1 freshman who absolutely exceeded expectations based on what Hearlihy had said. It wasn’t just our heads that turned with her performances that weekend. Among many college coaches and analysts in attendance, including Dan Olson, at the time the ESPN girls basketball analyst, all were very impressed. The Wolverines had the Pepperdine-bound Rufus-Milner twins, seniors Jayla and Jayda, but after watching her play Olson declared her the best player on the team even though he knew very little about her.
“When Kiki was a freshman I knew she was special,” Hearlihy said. “Tall and growing, very athletic, already had great hands and was solid around the basket. I was sure she was a division one athlete but at the highest level was going to be up to her.”
In her first game at the MLK Showcase she was matched up against current USC center and at the time Salesian (Richmond) 6-foot-5 junior center Angel Jackson. It was all Iriafen in a 54-39 Harvard-Westlake victory as she finished with 22 points and 16 rebounds to six points and nine rebounds for Jackson.
On MLK Day, Harvard-Westlake faced perennial Nevada power and at the time nationally-ranked Centennial of Las Vegas. Even after the win over Salesian, many expected the Wolverines to get blown out. They lost 59-49 but Kiki more than held her own and finished with team highs of 14 points and 12 rebounds. At that point Harvard-Westlake had a 16-4 record against top-notch competition and Iriafen already had 15 double-doubles in 20 games.
Iriafen ended up as the team’s leading scorer and rebounder her freshman season, and then in her sophomore and junior seasons as well. She’s started every game for Hearlihy and the Wolverines in her three years. Now with her going on to Stanford as not only the best player ever from Harvard-Westlake, and one of the top players in the nation, Kiki proved Olson to be more than correct.
The season has just begun
Kiki’s senior season should be over as of April 1 not just starting, and instead of a season-opening 58-48 victory over a Sierra Canyon team from across the San Fernando Valley in Chatsworth, Iriafen should have been playing in the McDonald’s All-American Game along with Demetre, Ryah Marshall of Lynwood and Clarice Akunwafo of Rolling Hills Prep of San Pedro.
“It’s an honor to be a McDonald’s All American,” Iriafen said. “Definitely wish we could have had the game this year but still such an honor. It definitely helped me keep my spirits up when our high school season was still up in the air.”
Instead of playing in the McDAAG, Kiki opened the season with, you guessed it, a double-double 17 points and 14 rebounds. She wasn’t a one girl team as the other three seniors on the Wolverines’ roster had solid games. Kimiko Katzaroff had 15 points, Krista Semaan added 13 points, nine rebounds, three assists and three steals, and Melissa Zozulenko chipped in with 11 points.
“I think we were more excited than anxious,” Iriafen answered when asked how anxious she and her teammates were to have some kind of season. “We’re excited to finally have a season and we seniors are excited to play a couple games together before we graduate.”
For a first game out of the gate with all four seniors in double-figure scoring against one of the top teams in the state is certainly a pretty exciting way to start.
With no playoffs and a current 21-game schedule right now that conceivably could change, what kind of goals does Iriafen have and what are the team’s goals? For Kiki, it not surprisingly involves improving her game.
“My goals this season are to become a better defender, passer, and free-throw shooter,” Iriafen said. “Of course, I’m working on all aspects of my game, but those three are the biggest right now.”
“As a team, our motto is ‘compete,’ especially with a season like this,” Kiki continued. “We can’t take the opportunities we have for granted. I would say our goal is to leave everything out on the court every single time we play and to constantly work hard.”
Speaking of the team, many star players that have the kind of numbers Iriafen puts up are ball hogs and not the best teammate, but not Kiki.
“Kiki is an exceptional young woman,” Hearlihy said. “She is very much like the twins in that she is always helping others. She’s clearly a top athlete but her attitude is extremely humble.”
When asked how Iriafen’s game has improved and what she needs to work on for the next level, Hearlihy focused on how she’s gotten better.
“Her game has evolved from a back to the basket player to a stretch 4 and moving towards a 3 spot,” Hearlihy said.
“Two aspects of her game have really improved in the last year,” continued Hearlihy. “She is able to guard on the perimeter. Length and quickness has always been her strength, now she has the mentality to pressure and move her feet. Her perimeter shooting is evolving nicely; she’s always been solid from 10-12 feet but now has stretched out to the 3 point line and developed a pull up jumper. Passing is an area that she can work on to really improve her game and playing at the college level will certainly help with that.”
Iriafen’s story is quite an interesting one. Her parents are from Nigeria and according to Kiki neither her father nor mother was really athletic, although there are cousins on her paternal side that are, as well as her younger siblings.
Her mother Yemi Iriafen is a home health consultant, and her father Harrison Iriafen owns his own business in the agricultural sector.
Little brother Shuby Iriafen, aged 14, plays soccer, but there is another hoopster in the family as Kiki’s 11-year old sister, Oyikan Iriafen, plays basketball.
Early on, her parents stressed academics and that hasn’t changed, but they obviously have seen what basketball has done for Kiki as it’s opened the doors to Stanford.
Academically, Iriafen is just as tough in the classroom as she is on the hardwood, and Harvard-Westlake has tough standards ranking No. 2 in California and No. 6 in the nation in academic achievement.
Iriafen carries a 4.3 GPA and is currently taking three AP courses, Literature, Statistics and Human Geography. Last year, she took AP Computer Science and Environmental Science.
When Kiki applied to Harvard-Westlake, she filled out the application herself. So, did she do the same for all the Stanford paperwork? The answer is yes, along with the other rigorous Stanford requirements such as personal essays, supplements, and short answer essays. Iriafen filled out the application last year but did have her parents look it over when she was done.
“I did do most of the Harvard-Westlake application by myself and I never even dreamed of going to Stanford,” Iriafen said. “”I didn’t really know where I would see myself in four years.”
Now, after this shortened season, Kiki will move on to The Farm as they call the Stanford campus in Palo Alto.
“It felt amazing to be accepted to Stanford,” Kiki remarked. “I work really hard in the classroom while balancing my basketball schedule as well. So to be accepted meant the world and that my hard work was paying off.”
So what is Iriafen looking forward to most about Stanford and how does she feel she will fit in with the program of NCAA all-time winningest coach Tara VanDerveer?
“I’m excited to explore and learn new things and to grow as a person,” Kiki answered. “Basketball wise, I’m excited to learn from one of the best coaches and coaching staffs in the country. I’m also looking forward to being a part of the Stanford sisterhood with my teammates.
“As long as I continue to work hard I think I’ll excel at Stanford,” Iriafen continued. “The coaches have been transparent to my classmates and I that we have to earn our spots. I think my rebounding, aggressiveness, and shot blocking will help me fit in with the program.”
Stanford is still several months away and then there are four years as a Cardinal, but then what, Olympics and WNBA?
“Yes to both,” Kiki said. “As of now I plan to declare for the draft after graduating from Stanford.”
Basketball and her Stanford degree will be a path toward a career after basketball, and after wanting to be a doctor in her youth she’s preparing for her new career of choice.
“I’ve always been interested in engineering and being hands on,” Iriafen said. “But after taking a computer science course last year and an engineering course this year I’ve become fascinated with the two.”
Hearlihy, who has been a head coach since 1986 and is No. 2 on the all time career coaching wins list in the Cal-Hi Sports Record Book after recording No. 763 in the Sierra Canyon win, has had some great players over the years, but she’s never had a star go on to Stanford.
“Kiki is the best player I have had in my program and her accolades prove it,” Hearlihy remarked. “Her size and athletic ability alone sets her apart from most. She really loves the game of basketball and has worked on her game continually to be the best she can be.”
That having been said, it goes beyond the hardwood.
“Kiki is a great teammate and student-athlete at Harvard-Westlake,” Hearlihy said in conclusion. “As parents we hope that our children are model human beings in their community and Kiki always represents her family and our school in the most positive light. An incredible young woman.”
Incredible indeed and despite what will be a shortened season, a leading candidate for Ms. Basketball State Player of the Year.
Harold Abend is the associate editor of CalHiSports.com and the vice president of the California Prep Sportswriters Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter: @HaroldAbend