Corona Centennial completes epic season that began with a decision last June to win its first CIF Open Division state title. It wasn’t as easy as winning section & regional playoff games at home, however, as Huskies had to get past a Modesto Christian squad that had it tied twice late in the fourth quarter. Elk Grove (D2) & Scripps Ranch (D4) also won CIF state titles on Saturday.
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Note: Editor and publisher Mark Tennis did the writeup for Scripps Ranch vs Justin-Siena.
Many of the fans on Saturday evening at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento came in with a curious mindset to see one of the nation’s best teams against an underdog team from Northern California. There was no doubt many of the fans felt it was going to be a coronation of the state’s No. 1 team and one looking to become the second public school to win the CIF Open Division crown. And there were moments when it looked like Centennial might wow the crowd and go off in grand style.
But the Crusaders, the Sac Joaquin Section D1 champs, had other plans and gave a terrific overall effort. They tied the contest at 48-48 with 3:21 remaining in the game and by that time, the crowd was clearly behind the boys from NorCal, cheering every basket and hustle play.
Then Donovan Dent of Centennial took over.
The New Mexico-bound point guard sparked an 11-2 run to close the game and seal Centennial’s first CIF state title with a driving lay-up (3:10 to go) and a steal and a lay-up (2:46 remaining). The Huskies went on for a 59-50 victory.
All of a sudden, the Huskies led 52-48 after Dent’s two plays. Modesto Christian’s last two points came on two free throws by junior big man Prince Oseya (5 points). On the next possession, junior guard Jared McCain knocked down a 3-pointer to give the Huskies a 55-50 lead. After a miss by the Crusaders’ B.J. Davis in traffic, Dent raced up the court and dished to Ramsey Huff for a lay-up (his only two points). Dent then closed the game by breaking down weary Crusader defenders off the dribble and dishing to Aaron McBride for an easy dunk to complete the championship run.
The crowd seemed to get what it wanted in the first CIF state championship weekend since 2019: A terrific effort by the NorCal underdog and a masterful performance by the CIF Southern Section open champions.
“When we called that timeout with the score tied, we lit into the guys, but there was no panic,” said Centennial coach Josh Giles. “Donnie made the plays. It’s hard for me to talk about Donnie and the seniors. We’ve had some good teams here at Centennial, but it would be hard to have a team with better chemistry. Any coach in the nation would love to have these guys on their team.”
Despite earning Cal-Hi Sports State Team of the Year honors during the 2021 spring season, this Centennial team was still extremely motivated. After winning last year’s CIF Southern Section Open Division title on the court, Giles and his staff made a decision to opt out of the SoCal regional because there was no CIF state final and in order to give his all-underclass lineup a chance to play in front of college coaches within the backdrop of COVID-19. That worked out terrific for his starters, and so did using that motivation to come back and win the CIF state title on the court. Centennial, which lost in the state D1 final in 2014, joined the 2016 mythical national champion Chino Hills club as the second public school to win a CIF open state title. Centennial is also the first team from Riverside County to capture a boys basketball CIF title in the highest classification.
The Huskies were dominant in their playoff run in the CIFSS and SoCal open playoffs. No team came within 20 points, so that made the Crusaders’ performance even more impressive. Modesto Christian, which has never won a state title at the open/D1 level, got down by 14 points in the third period, but showed tremendous resiliency, especially Oseya and sophomore forward Manasee Itete. The duo made Centennial’s interior players work and gave Modesto Christian’s banged up guards that extra fight to make a fourth quarter run.
“We definitely prepared to win this game, and came in expecting to win this game,” said Modesto Christian coach Brice Fantazia, whose program is now 2-3 in CIF state title games. “We’re Modesto Christian; so even though we’re extremely proud of our guys, we don’t believe in moral victories.”
Centennial (33-1) opened the game taking a 6-0 lead and there were signs the Huskies could break open the game early. After a couple of miscues, Modesto Christian (29-6) got off the schneid with a long 3-pointer by Jamari Phillips. That made the score 6-3 and after a 3-pointer by B.J. Davis, the Crusaders trailed 12-9. Centennial, however, took a 22-13 lead at the end of the first period. Centennial only had eight points in the second period, but the Crusaders could only muster nine points and trailed 30-22 at halftime.
Dent finished with a game-high 21 points on 9-of-19 shooting and added eight rebounds and five assists. McCain made 3-of-5 on 3-pointers and finished with 16 points. Both junior Devin Williams and McBride, also a junior, ended with 10 points. The 6-foot-9 Williams also turned heads with his four blocked shots and two made 3-pointers.
“I had plenty of motivation after last season and not going to state,” said McCain, who grew up and lived in Sacramento until the start of 7th grade. “To win it here, it was a dream come true. Sacramento is a beautiful city and when we got here, I just got a good vibe.”
Giles also got a good vibe from his high school coach Mike LeDuc, who won his first CIF state title in 42 years as a head coach 24 hours earlier with Damien of La Verne in D1. Giles was a Cal-Hi Sports all-state choice in 1996 at Glendora for his coaching mentor.
“We exchanged text messages and I was excited for him,” Giles said, now in his 19th season at Centennial, and who also was pumped up and proud to join Centennial football coach Matt Logan as a CIF state champion.
This game was played with passion, although Modesto Christian would have liked to execute better to start and take back a few of the forced perimeter shots. It was also telling to see both coaches get choked up in the post-game presser about their seniors, considering both lineups are underclass dominated.
Phillips, a sophomore shooting guard, led Modesto Christian with 20 points. He made 7-of-23 field goal attempts. Itete, a crowd favorite, finished with 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting from the field. Davis battled bruises and a banged up body to finish with nine points and seven rebounds.
Division II Boys
Elk Grove 62, Foothill (Tustin) 56
This boys game was exactly the scenario intended when the CIF went to the competitive equity model: two public schools that have never advanced to a CIF championship game battling it out.
On the scoreboard and the stat sheet, it seemed as though the Thundering Herd, the NorCal representative, was outplaying their SoCal counterpart from Orange County. Elk Grove maintained the lead for a majority of the game, with the exception of the Knights taking a 22-20 lead with 2:48 remaining in the second period. Elk Grove (28-6) took the lead right back and led 29-24 at halftime.
Foothill (31-4) was able to hang around by capitalizing on Elk Grove mistakes, namely rushed shots or backcourt turnovers, and had its faithful believing until the middle of the fourth quarter. At the end, however, Elk Grove never relinquished its late second quarter lead and went on to capture the program’s first-ever CIF state title. It was also the second boys state title for a team from the Elk Grove Unified School District, joining Pleasant Grove of Elk Grove, the D1 champ in 2013. Perennial NorCal power and EGUSD member Sheldon of Sacramento has never won a CIF state title despite appearing in seven of the nine NorCal open division regionals. This year, the Huskies went 2-1 in games vs Elk Grove.
Elk Grove (29-6) was able to maintain its lead throughout the second half by hitting its outside shots and making its free throws down the stretch. Elk Grove, which lost to Grant of Sacramento in the Sac-Joaquin Section D2 semis, made 8-of-17 on 3-pointers. Foothill, which came up short in the CIF Southern Section 2AA semifinals against Long Beach Poly, made 3-of-18.
“I think our 3-for-18 shooting was the difference in the game,” Foothill coach Yousof Etemadi. “We were also out-rebounded (33-24) and that also was a difference (in the game).”
“We knew it was going to be a little different shooting in a NBA arena,” said Elk Grove senior guard Karlos Zepeda, one of three Thundering Herd players in double-digits with 17 points. “We always have confidence that we are going to knock them down.”
Zepeda was the main contributor at the charity stripe that kept the Knights at bay down the stretch. He hit 9-of-10 free throws, while leading scorer and player Ameere Britton made 8-of-10 free throws before fouling out with 20 points with 55.4 seconds to go. Senior guard Jordan Hess finished with 14 points, including 3-of-6 on 3-pointers. Britton, a prime all-state candidate and the Herd’s ringleader, also had seven rebounds and drew some key fouls after milking the clock in the fourth period. Senior DaJon Lott contributed 12 rebounds and four blocks.
Cruz Billings, a senior guard, led the way for Foothill with 23 points on 8-of-17 shooting and dished off five assists. Carlo Billings, a junior and Cruz’s younger brother, had 11 points, but no other player individually had more than 10 points or five rebounds.
After his team’s historic victory, Elk Grove coach Dustin Monday talked about his team’s family atmosphere, Britton’s leadership, and the Thunderous support from its home crowd at the Golden 1 Center as the only local team in this year’s state championships.
“A lot of people from all over Elk Grove showed up tonight,” Monday said. “During the season, I take care of this group more than my own kids. You just can’t do this job if you don’t feel that way.”
Elk Grove’s fans and supporters can take pride that it came out to support a team full of local kids that captured the school’s first state title. It can also take pride that the program played a hand in creating the modern day CIF state tournament, which was created in 1981.
Elk Grove was the Cal-Hi Sports State Team of the Year in 1975 after winning the NorCal TOC behind the incomparable exploits of state all-time great Bill Cartwright, who was already looked at as a sure-fire future NBA player during his senior year. The NorCal TOC was the precursor to the CIF state tournament and in three games at the Oakland Coliseum, Cartwright’s presence helped draw 29,587. In the next season, the CIF took over from the NorCal leagues in formalizing post-season play.
Division IV Boys
Scripps Ranch (San Diego) 46, Justin-Siena (Napa) 37
Starting a CIF state final at 12 noon on a Saturday has created some great memories for this school. That was when the Falcons won the CIF D2-A championship last December in football and that was when they won in this game at the Golden 1 Center.
In winning a CIF state title in football and boys hoops in the same school year, Scripps Ranch (26-11) became just the fourth in state history to accomplish that feat. The Falcons join Serra of Gardena (2009-10), Chaminade of West Hills (2013-14) & St. John Bosco of Bellflower (2013-14).
Two of the Falcons’ football players who also were on the basketball team — 6-foot-8 quarterback Jax Leatherwood & 6-foot defensive back Lamont Wilkerson — were major contributors to Saturday’s victory. Leatherwood, who passed for 52 touchdowns in football, blocked eight shots to go with seven points and six rebounds. Wilkerson was the best athlete on the floor and ended with a game-high 19 points plus four steals.
“At the first of the season we were good and then we got the football players back and took a few steps back before going forward,” said Falcons’ head coach Brock Flint, who also had the pleasure of coaching his son, Caden (5 points, 6 rebounds), as a captain and big scorer (13.5 ppg) of this year’s team. “But they both added so much defensively.”
Junior forward Dean Paley, who caught the game-winning touchdown pass from Leatherwood in the football state finals in the closing seconds, came into the basketball game in the last two minutes.
“For the school to have never won CIF (San Diego Section) before (in either sport) and then to win both in state in the same year is special,” Flint said. “We all won together and we all won as a family.”
Leatherwood admitted that he didn’t know that it was possible for a team to lose in a section final in basketball and then go on to the regionals, which happened for Scripps Ranch after a loss to San Dieguito Academy.
“It was like, ‘Okay, we’ve still got a shot,” said Leatherwood, who also said he would be immediately joining the Falcons’ boys volleyball team next week. “I’d much rather win state and I’m just so happy we got to win state in both.”
Justin-Siena, which also was looking to win its first state title, only trailed by one point at halftime. The Braves (22-12) were led by Travis Hightower with 10 points, but it took him into the second half to score his first points. The junior was the team’s leading scorer at 12.6 ppg.
“There’s not a better group of 15 young men that I could coach,” said Braves’ head coach George Nessman, a former head coach at Concord De La Salle & at San Jose State. “We prepared great, but kudos to Scripps Ranch. They made plays that we didn’t make.”
One more final note on Scripps Ranch is that Flint’s team was only 4-16 in the 2021 shortened spring season.
“We never would have made it here unless we believed it could happen,” Flint said. “It was an amazing experience.”