Girls BB: CIF Saturday Finals

JuJu Watkins took her place among some of the most impressive players to have ever appeared in a CIF state final the way she played in Sierra Canyon’s win vs Mitty. Photo: Samuel Stringer.

When the CIF last staged staged state championships in basketball in 2019, the Open Division girls champion was Sierra Canyon of Chatsworth. Much has changed in the world since then due to COVID, but the Trailblazers have returned to the top of California girls hoops with an impressive win over Archbishop Mitty of San Jose. Sage Hill of Newport Beach (D2) & Branson of Ross (D4) also claimed state crowns on Saturday.

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Note: Editor and publisher Mark Tennis did the writeup for Sage Hill vs San Joaquin Memorial.

When junior superstar Judea “Juju” Watkins transferred to Sierra Canyon for the 2021-2022 school year and joined sophomore standouts MacKenly Randolph and Izela Arenas, the Trailblazers were simultaneously anointed as the leading contenders for the 2022 CIF Open Division state championship.

Head coach Alicia Komaki and her girls started the season 14-0 before losing 73-71 to La Jolla Country Day. They won another 12 straight games before losing 69-57 in the CIF Southern Section Open Division title game to Etiwanda.

Now, within the span of 13 days, Sierra Canyon (30-2) not only avenged the two losses with 63-62 and 60-51 victories over Country Day and Etiwanda, respectively, but they captured the Southern Regional Open Division championship with the win over Etiwanda.

On Saturday evening at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, it all culminated as Sierra Canyon (30-2) fulfilled its destiny and at the same time left no doubt as to which is the top girls team in California with an 85-61 dismantling of Archbishop Mitty.

Alicia Komaki has been the head coach at Sierra Canyon for 10 years & already has five CIF state titles. Photo: Samuel Stringer / Cal-Hi Sports

“We knew our destiny after the CIF (Southern Section) championship,” Komaki said. “We knew we were going to be on the road. We knew we were going to face a tough La Jolla Country Day team, and go to Etiwanda again, and hopefully travel up to Sacramento. We knew our fate and we’re just so proud of how we bounced back.”

Against Mitty, the ball was certainly bouncing the Trailblazers’ way.

Watkins set the tone with the first of two three-pointers from a foot beyond the NBA three-point line that gave Sierra Canyon a 5-2 lead. There were two ties in the first quarter and Mitty took its only lead at 7-6, but from there the Trailblazers had an 11-0 run and outscored the Monarchs 15-7 to take a 21-14 lead after one quarter.

When Watkins connected a second time for an NBA-plus three-pointer to open the second quarter, Sierra Canyon was off to the races. By halftime, it used a 10-0 run to open a 41-27 lead.

The Trailblazers were 5-for-11 on threes in the first half and it got better in the final two periods. They finished 10-for-20 from outside the arc and 30-for-61 for an outstanding 49.2 percent from the field. They were also 15-of-19 from the free-throw line and 78 percent from the charity stripe is pretty decent for girls basketball.

After nailing two three pointers in the first half, Trailblazers’ sophomore Christy Reynoso drained back-to-back treys near the end of the third quarter to open a 20-point lead that ended up 62-45 to enter the fourth after Mitty senior Seattle University-bound Makayla Moore hit a three-pointer at the end of the third.

Reynoso finished making all four three-pointers she attempted and all five of her shots to finish as one of five Trailblazers’ girls in double-figure scoring with 14 points, but while hers and the other Sierra Canyon girls were impressive in a total team effort, the biggest attraction was still Watkins.

The 6-foot-2 Watkins, who has the moves of a gazelle and can accelerate like a tiger chasing its prey, had another monster double-double 23 points and 19 rebounds with six assists, six blocked shots and three steals.

One of the other three girls to hit double figures was Randolph, who had a double-double 13 points and 10 rebounds. Arenas hit two treys and finished with 12 points and freshman Leia Edwards had the exact same line.

“We’re all very well aware of how talented Juju is but we’re a really talented team,” Komaki remarked. “Before she jumped in here and joined us we were young and we were hungry, and we were ready to get to this level. She accelerated it a thousand percent.”

“I had this goal a long time ago, just being young and having a dream to come up here and play for a state championship,” Watkins remarked. “To see it happen is a dream come true.

“As a team, we worked extra hard all the way from November to here,” Watkins continued. “A lot of nights and hours and hours in the gym got us ready to come up here and just play.”

And play they did. In this game, the lead accelerated as well and got to 24 points on four occasions in the fourth quarter, including the final score when junior Natasha Bay sank two free-throws for the game’s final tallies.

Mitty (30-2) got 14 points and nine rebounds from Moore, who has been doing that off the bench all season. Blossoming sophomore Morgan Cheli had 11 points and seven rebounds, and Texas-San Antonio-signed senior Siena Guttadauro added 10 points and three assists.

Mitty head coach Sue Phillips tried to be upbeat in the press conference.

“We’re incredibly disappointed with the outcome but we’re extremely grateful to be here,” Phillips said. “Sierra Canyon was fantastic and we weren’t quite up to the challenge tonight but we should applaud these young women behind me with 30 wins.

“There’s something to be said about this group behind me,” Phillips continued. “We may not have showed the full body of work by tonight’s outcome but I hope people would look across our full season and recognize what a fantastic year these ladies have had.”

With the CIF not holding state championships in 2021 and cancelling them at the last moment in 2020, Sierra Canyon has technically won back-to-back CIF Open Division state championships after beating Pinewood (Los Altos Hills) in the 2019 Open title game.

For Komaki personally, she has now won five CIF state championships in five appearances in 10 years at the Sierra Canyon helm. The first three were consecutive. In 2013, it was in Division V and in 2014 and 2015 it was in Division IV. Only five coaches have won more than five state championships but none got their first five in their first 10 years.

“It’s about the girls and the team, and I wouldn’t be in this position if it wasn’t for them, and if it wasn’t for Sierra Canyon and for Rock (Sierra Canyon AD Rock Pillsbury) for hiring me 10 years ago,” Komaki said. “He took a chance on a kid who was never a head coach.

“Just the belief that the program had in me, that the administration had in me, that the parents have had in me 10 years later that they still do, but we get these kids to buy in,” Komaki continued. “They believe in me and I think that’s the biggest thing. You don’t want your coach just to believe in your players, you need your players to believe your coach. Whatever it is I’m doing its working and we’ll just keep trying to do it that way for a little bit longer.”

The little bit longer will begin in the fall when Komaki returns Watkins, Randolph, Arenas, and all but one senior on a team that will likely be No. 1 in the state and nation in preseason rankings.

Isabel Gomez (left) & Emily Eadie were two of the leading players for Sage Hill during team’s CIF D2 state title game win over San Joaquin Memorial. Photo: Mark Tennis / Cal-Hi Sports.

Division II Girls
Sage Hill (Newport Beach) 51, San Joaquin Memorial (Fresno) 47

During its run to earn its trip to Sacramento to be in this game, Sage Hill pulled out several big wins with big plays in the final seconds so it only made sense for the Thunder to have to do it again.

The Panthers had a 40-35 lead midway through the fourth quarter, then there were several lead changes. With 29 seconds left, Sage Hill struck for the last time when Emily Eadie found some room to drive the lane and scored on a lay-up that gave Sage Hill a 48-47 lead. The Panthers then looked to get the ball inside or get to the line for free throws. They got neither. Then after a rebound, they had to foul with 10 seconds left and the clock running. The foul was committed, but it was called intentional, which meant the Thunder would get two shots and the ball. Four made free throws later and Sage Hill had earned its first-ever CIF state title.

In an earlier regional game vs perennial power Long Beach Poly, the Thunder (27-10) pulled out a 42-39 win. Then in the regional final, it was a game-winning shot with three seconds left by Kat Righeimer that gave the girls the win.

“Our girls work extremely hard and when we play like that, there is not a team out there that they can’t play with,” said head coach Kerwin Walters, who’s school won its first-ever CIF state crown. “We’ve been there and won tight games before. That comes from everyone. Every single one of them standing up here has been into this.”

Eadie and Righeimer both wound up in double figures with 13 and 11 points, respectively. The team’s leading scorer was senior Isabel Gomez, who had 14 points and had 11 rebounds. Eadie also pulled down 11 rebounds.

On the game-winning play, Eadie said she noticed the Panthers’ looking to crowd Gomez on the outside, which created space in the middle.

San Joaquin Memorial (27-7) looked to perhaps be misplaced in D2 (instead of higher in D1) based on many of its results and for most of the game was in command as it outscored Sage Hill 17-10 and 17-14 in the second and third quarters. Leading scorer Meadow Roland was kept well below her nearly 20 ppg average and had 10 points, but Malaysia Williams helped pick up the slack (8 points) while both Saiya Sidhu & Haley Duvall each made two 3-pointers. Freshman Alexis Swillis also had 13 rebounds and six points.

Panthers’ interim head coach Verenique Warren, who took over for former head coach Jackie White in January, was proud of how the team fought through a big change such as that one.

“We faced adversity all year, but we just came up short,” she said. “Six of our top 10 are freshmen and we hope this is the first of many trips to state, but I saw some stage fright. The jitters right there at the end might have played a part.”

Several of the Sage Hill players were friends with three of the girls from the Mamba Academy team that were killed in the January 2020 helicopter crash that also claimed the life of legend Kobe Bryant. Who knows for sure, but based on published information GiGi Bryant, Kobe’s daughter, easily could have been a member of this team (she would have been a sophomore in high school right now).

“Obviously, with everything we’ve been through with that is always going to stay with us,” Righeimer said. “Just to be together on this big stage is a big help.”

Branson players show off their medals after they posted a dominant victory against Imperial in the CIF D4 championship. The Bulls won their school’s third state crown. Photo: Mark Tennis.

Division IV Girls
Branson (Ross) 46, Imperial 23

Northern Regional Division IV champion Branson broke out to a 6-2 lead and it looked like at that point the Bulls might draw away, but they became a little tentative and missed some easy shots that allowed Imperial to tie it at 8-8 after one quarter.

The early tentativeness disappeared when Branson first-year head coach Trey Mitchell had his Bulls crank up the defense. The result was a 24-0 run after the full court press held Imperial scoreless for a span of 12 minutes and 33 seconds between the final 10 seconds of the first quarter and the 3:37 mark of the third. At that point, the score was 32-10 and the CIF Division IV state champion had long been decided.

The bottom line is NorCal No. 3 seed Branson and SoCal sixth-seeded Imperial had similar paths to the D4 title game in some areas and very different routes in others. What was similar was how the two teams progressed through the regional playoffs. Both teams had to win on the road during the run to the Saturday morning match-up at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, but that was about all that was similar.

Imperial didn’t play anywhere close to the kind of schedule prior to the playoffs as Branson did. Of the Bulls’ eight losses one is to NorCal Open champion Archbishop Mitty and two are in Marin County Athletic League action to CIF North Coast Division 4 champion Marin Catholic of Kentfield. They also had a close loss to a Sacred Heart Cathedral of San Francisco team that was in the Central Coast Section Open Division playoffs and placed in Division I for the Northern Regional playoffs.

“Absolutely,” responded Mitchell when asked if playing teams like Mitty prepared his girls for winning a state championship. “I’d love to play Mitty twice next season.”

“From the very first day when I arrived here in November we talked about what it would take to get to state,” continued Mitchell. “Playing teams like Mitty and Sacred Heart Cathedral, and Marin Catholic in our league helped pave the way.”

Branson (24-8) was led by Hannah Golan. The blossoming junior had a solid double-double 21 points and 15 rebounds with five steals. Senior Jaliyah Wiggins added 10 points and five rebounds with five steals and three assists.

The Bulls have now won three CIF state championships in three appearances. The first two came in back-to-back Division five titles in 2007 and 2008 under current D5 champion San Domenico head coach Mike Fulton.

Imperial (28-7) was making its first appearance in a state championship game and is also the first team girls or boys from the Imperial Valley portion of the CIF San Diego Section to appear in a state championship game. The Tigers were led by junior power forward Siera Morris with 11 points and eight rebounds.

Prior to the game, the Imperial girls were enjoying being in an NBA arena and passed for photo opportunities on the court.

“We just couldn’t make any shots after what I thought was a good first quarter,” remarked Imperial head coach Richard Ponchione. “For some of our girls, it was the first time they’ve ever been on an airplane or to Sacramento. It has been the experience of a lifetime.”

As for next year, there is good news for both teams. Imperial returns its entire starting five. Wiggins and two other seniors graduate for Branson but Golan and the other three starters are back.

Harold Abend is the associate editor of and the vice president of the California Prep Sportswriters Association. He can be reached at Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter: @HaroldAbend

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