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CIF-SS DIV. 2A BOYS BASKETBALL SEMIFINALS- La Mirada turns up the heat in fourth quarter, advances to second straight title game

La Mirada High sophomore Julien Gomez goes up for a second half shot against Logan Stewart of Pacifica Christian/Orange County High in last Friday night’s CIF-Southern Section Division 2A semifinal game. Gomez scored 17 points on seven of 13 shooting from the field and had four steals as the Matadores won 55-37. PHOTO BY ARMANDO VARGAS, Contributing photographer.

February 22, 2023

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

For the first 22 minutes of last Friday night’s CIF-Southern Section Division 2A semifinal game, La Mirada High played Pacifica Christian/Orange County High to a tight game that was within a couple of possessions. But it was a three-pointer from sophomore Julien Gomez that was the beginning of the end for the visiting Tritons.

With 1:43 left in the third quarter, Gomez nailed down his only perimeter shot to give the third-ranked Matadores a 34-27 lead. It would be the start of a 9-1 run that enabled the Gateway League co-champions to maintain a double-digit lead throughout the fourth quarter and send them on their way to a 55-37 win. La Mirada advances to the 2A championship game for a second straight season. Last year, it fell to San Juan Hills High 59-49 in the finals.

“I’m just happy for our guys,” said La Mirada head coach Randy Oronoz. “I told them before the game, all the morning lifting and shots…everything comes out to one game to make it back to the finals. It’s kind of crazy when you think about it. Thirty-two minutes for all the work they put in. I just told them, ‘take advantage of your opportunity and be ready to try and get back there’.”

“To be honest with you, I’m extremely blessed,” said Gomez. “There are not a lot of kids in this situation right now. I’m living in the moment, and I don’t take it for granted. I’m very thankful for it.”

The Matadores (24-8) will face top-ranked Rancho Christian High, the Ivy League champions, in the finals on Saturday at Colony High in Ontario. Game time is scheduled for 4:00 p.m. After seeing PC/OC score the game’s first basket 15 seconds following a steal from Alex Stewart, senior Sean Cervantes responded with a three-pointer. The Tritons would lead one more time at 4-3 but couldn’t add to it and would never get closer than a point the remainder of the game.

In fact, it was a steal and subsequent three-pointer from Cervantes 1:35 into the fourth quarter that gave La Mirada its largest lead of the game at that time, 40-28. The hosts would outscore the Tritons 18-9 in the final stanza to seal the deal,

“It’s great man, I’m very appreciative,” said Cervantes. “It’s something that not many people are going to get. We have a great coaching staff, and we have great players like [Julien] on our team. So, it helps out; it’s very nice.

“I thought we controlled the whole game pretty much,” he later added. “But when our shooters, [senior] Athan Sierra and [junior] Isaiah Valenzuela hit two big three’s, I think that really brought us momentum because it’s always great having our shooters hitting.”

It was a steal from Gomez, who assisted on a Valenzuela three-pointer that made the score 49-34 with 2:16 left in the game. Nearly a minute later, Sierra added the first of consecutive downtown baskets to end the scoring for La Mirada.

As it has been doing most of the season, La Mirada’s defense set the tone for the game, allowing eight points in the first quarter and limiting PC/OC to 16 shot attempts in the first half. In fact, the Tritons were held to 11 points until 2:51 remained in the half when they went on an 8-2 run to close out the half.

“Our defense…we take a lot of pride in that,” said Gomez. “We have a phenomenal coach, coach Dave Martinez. He sets the bar with defensive schemes and also coach Randy. We just go through our schemes. What we did in practice, we executed out here on the court and man, it was amazing. I feel like we’re one of the best defensive teams in the area.”

“Our team is a very great defensive team,” said Cervantes. “Coach Dave and coach Randy drove defense in our heads, and I feel that is staple of our game. We’re always going to be known as a tough, gritty team. I feel our defense carries our offense a lot.”

La Mirada, which forced 13 turnovers and got four steals from Gomez and three more from Cervantes, held an opponent to under 40 points for the second time all season. The other time came in the second game of the season when Aquinas High managed just 30 points against the Matadores. But this game was a combination of the work put together from the seniors and the future of the program. Cervantes scored a game-high 18 points, Sierra came off the bench to add seven points and senior Anegi Castillo grabbed six rebounds while Gomez scored 17 points and junior Michael Torres had five rebounds.

“It’s senior leadership,” said Oronoz. “Everyone looks at Sean Cervantes and…that’s the best true point guard in Southern California. I’ve been saying that all year. People look at him and don’t believe it. He’s never rattled, but what a true point guard. He scored tonight, but he makes the game so much easier for everyone. I’ve said it all year, when I have Sean and Julien and my other guards, I’ll take these guards over anyone and that’s going to be put to the test next game.

“Sean and Julien work out religiously,” he continued. “They believe in each other so much because they put in the amount of hours and work to do it. So, when one is going, the other one is not going to be a hater. When the other one is going, they let him rock. I’m just super proud of them.”

Cervantes and Gomez were causing havoc for the Tritons as they didn’t know who to cover at any one time down the court. Cervantes attempted the first two shots of the game before Gomez shot three of the next four. In the second quarter, Cervantes was three of four from the field while Gomez attempted one shot. But in the third quarter, both attempted four shots while three other players combined to go two of four.

“We were taking shots back and forth,” said Gomez of his scoring partner. “Our coach has been preaching all year and thinks me and Sean are the best guards in the area. I think we’ve been proving that and it’s hard to stop both of us when we’re both going. Sean is such a phenomenal player and that’s why he’s going to be playing college ball next year.”

Gomez has been the team’s leading scorer all season and has a dozen games of scoring at least 30 points and another six of scoring at least 25 points while Cervantes has reached double digits in scoring 14 times. In contrast, half a dozen other players have combined 15 times to score at least 10 points.

“I feel it all starts from our offseason where me and him pretty much see each other every day,” said Cervantes. “We’re in the gym every day and it builds chemistry for us. I feel like we can reach each other’s minds and when it comes to that, it’s hard to stop.”

“Everyone gives Julien a lot of credit for scoring,” said Oronoz. “But look at the score defensively. I’d be remised if I didn’t say our guys that guard Julien every day [in practice] make Julien better. So, when they have to guard the other guys, it’s a little easier. I’m not saying that, but Julien get better because he plays against our defense every day and our defense gets better because they play against Sean and Julien every day.”

Even though the steal and basket from Cervantes opened the fourth quarter scoring to give La Mirada its first double digit lead, there was no easing up. The Tritons had entered the game scoring at least 60 points in seven of their previous nine games. But as it turned out, they scored a season-low 37 points and had been held to under 50 points just twice all season.

“I think you have to get stops,” said Gomez of the fourth quarter. “You have to get a lot of stops, you have to get a lot of kills and our shooters just hit. We passed it out to them on the corners and on the wings and they were just hitting them. When we’re playing good defense and our shooters are knocking down shots, it’s hard to stop us.

“They have a good backcourt,” he continued. “Those are some good guards, and they play together as a team. So, heading into this game, our defense needed to be on point and our communication, too. We also needed to execute down the stretch and I think we checked all those boxes. That’s why we came out victorious and blew them out here at home.”

Rancho Christian, out of Temecula, enters the championship game at 22-10 and is on a six-game winning streak while the Matadores have won 11 of their last 13 contests.

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