State No. 1 Etiwanda girls crank up the defense to win Platinum Division title at 21st annual La Jolla Country Day Sweet 16 early season tournament. Host school reaches the title game and its longtime head coach, Terri Bamford, won the 700th game of her career to join an illustrious all-time state list.
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Trailing by six at the half, nine points in the early third quarter, and 41-34 with five minutes left in the third, preseason state No. 1 ranked Etiwanda went on a 12-1 run and from there the Eagles never trailed in a 65-58 victory on Saturday evening over host and preseason No. 12 La Jolla Country Day in the Platinum Division of the 21st annual La Jolla Country Day Sweet 16 Invitational Tournament.
Not surprisingly, the run was keyed by the Eagles’ three big stars, defending State Junior of the Year Kennedy Smith, State Sophomore of the Year Aliyahna “Puff” Morris, and newcomer and junior sensation Grace Knox.
The 6-foot-1 Smith, a 247Sports five-star prospect, who last month signed on at USC, was like a one girl wrecking crew during the run and down the stretch. On defense she was everywhere and guarding everyone and anyone, on top or down low. On offense she scored 14 of her team-high 19 points in the second half. Smith, who was named the MVP of the Sweet 16, also had five of her eight rebounds and all three steals in the second half, two assists in the first half, plus she drained two three-pointers, including one from NBA range that tied the game at 42-42.
Etiwanda head coach Stan Delus could not have said it better when talking about Smith, who is unquestionably the greatest player in Etiwanda girls basketball history.
“She a monster out there,” Delus remarked. “That’s why she’s one of the best players in the country.
“Kennedy being that core person that’s been here four years is the kind of player that can withstand those runs teams are giving us right now,” Delus continued. “That’s exactly what she did tonight.”
Morris picked up three fouls in the first half switching off on La Jolla Country Day star Naomi Panganiban, but played through it well in the second half to lead the the Torreys. She finished with 14 points, three assists and three rebounds.
Knox, an ESPN five-star prospect, showed why her addition to the Etiwanda attack is going to be huge this season. She took over inside in the second half allowing Smith to float on top. The 6-foot-3 Knox had a double-double 14 points and 13 rebounds plus three blocks, with eight points and eight rebounds coming in the second half.
“Grace is a very active player, very athletic,” Delus said. “She gives us a dimension that we didn’t have.”
Delus put everyone he could on Panganiban, switching fresh players on and off guarding her in the second half. The San Diego State-bound guard had 23 points in the first half, but with the Eagles beating on her defensively in the second half, she did tire down the stretch, but despite it all still finished with 40 points. Of her five three-pointers, two came in the fourth quarter, with one cutting the lead to 55-50, but that was as close as the Torreys would get.
Besides the huge performance from Panganiban, La Jolla Country Day (5-2) got 10 points from sophomore Mei-Ling Perry.
Despite returning his top core player in Smith, along with Morris, and returning senior Mykelle Richards and sophomore Arynn Finley, plus Knox and Mater Dei junior transfer Shaena Brew, Delus still feels like the team has not fully jelled.
“We’re still trying to find an identity,” Delus said. “I don’t think people understand how hard it is to replace some of the players we lost.”
“That’s not something that’s easily replaceable,” continued Delus. “Just because we added a couple of more talented players we still have to build chemistry, we still have to build a camaraderie, and we’re still doing that and trying to figure ourselves out right now as a young group. Once we can find a blend of all our players we’re going to be fine.”
Joining MVP Smith on all tournament for Etiwanda was Morris, Knox and Finley.
Panganiban and Perry were named all tournament for La Jolla Country Day.
Etiwanda (6-1) opened the season with an impressive 65-48 victory over preseason No. 5 St. Mary’s of Stockton, but two weeks ago when the Eagles travelled to Texas for the Nike Hoopfest, Delus contracted pneumonia and was unable to coach.
The Eagles got by Texas Liberty of Frisco, 65-55, but against national top 20 Duncanville they lost 78-75 in double overtime with Delus absent from the bench.
“I’ve never not coached a game at Etiwanda since I’ve been here,” said a somewhat disconsolate Delus about missing the game, and who is still not fully recovered. “Even without me we should have won the game.”
Prior to the win over Country Day at the Sweet 16, the Eagles were easy winners over San Diego Francis Parker and preseason state No. 13 Mission Hills.
In the semifinals, Etiwanda defeated preseason No. 17 Santiago of Corona, 68-51. In that game, it was Morris leading the way with 19 points, seven steals, six rebounds and six assists. Smith added 16 points, eight rebounds and three steals, and Knox had 11 points and eight rebounds.
Santiago got a game-high 21 points with six steals, three rebounds and three assists from senior Zawadi Ogot.
It doesn’t get any easier for Etiwanda in what Delus called a “gauntlet” of a schedule beginning next Saturday with preseason state No. 9 Oakland Tech.
Of note is on Thursday La Jolla Country Day head coach Terri Bamford recorded career win No. 700 in a 63-60 overtime victory over Buena Park. According to the Cal-Hi Sports Online Record Book, she is now No. 10 all time and No. 6 among active coaches in the state. With 701 wins starting this week, Bamford needs 25 more victories to pass Jay Trousdale (Poway, 1988-2022) to become the winningest coach in CIF San Diego Section history.
A new star is born
Because a team in the Sweet 16 dropped out, preseason No. 10 Ontario Christian (5-1) only got two games and won both, 75-56, over Valley Vista of Moreno Valley and 65-55 versus Mission Hills.
Flashy guard Kaleena Smith already came into the season as one of the top incoming freshmen in the nation, and in the two games at the Sweet 16, Smith did not disappoint the couple of dozen college coaches in attendance.
Smith, who was the top freshman and tied for No. 11 in the Girls of Summer player rankings in what wasn’t her best performance when observed, had a double-double 35 points (six three-pointers) and 10 assists with five rebounds against Valley Vista.
Against Mission Hills, Smith smoothly went for 40 points, four rebounds and three assists, and one of her four three-pointers was from NBA range. It was her second 40-point performance of the season. In the one loss for Ontario Christian, 70-61, to preseason No.8 Sage Hill of Newport Beach, Smith still managed to score 28 points with six three-pointers.
So far this season, Smith is averaging 33.0 points, 6.3 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 2.3 steals per game. She’s already has made 27 three-pointers in six games and is shooting 85 percent from the free-throw line.
Seton Catholic of Arizona wins Gold Division
While Bamford of La Jolla Country Day was winning her 700th game, another head coach at the Sweet 16 got her 700th a while back, and in fact Karen Self from Seton Catholic of Chandler, Ariz., got career win No. 800 earlier this season.
On Saturday, Seton Catholic delivered another win for Self when the Sentinels won the Gold Division with a 47-42 victory over Los Angeles Marlborough. Senior Caitlyn Benally led Seton Catholic with 17 points and six rebounds. Junior Sophie Morales added 12 points and four steals.
Marlborough (6-2) got 15 points and seven rebounds from sophomore Leila Boykin and 11 points and five rebounds from sophomore Amirah Muhammad.
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