Sonora earns CIF Championship berth after fighting off scrappy Oak Hills
by Nathan Percy
La Habra Journal
In six attempts in his first 28 years as a high school boys’ basketball head coach, Sonora’s Mike Murphy came up short in semifinal games, five of which were while coaching the Raiders.
Against a scrappy Oak Hills team, the Sonora boys’ basketball team gave its head coach his first opportunity at coaching a CIF Championship game by running away in the fourth quarter to a 57-46 victory, Tuesday night at home.
The win gives Murphy his first shot at a CIF title with Sonora in his 24-year tenure.
“There’s not a better group of guys I’d rather be with and Murphy deserves this more than anyone,” said Ben Rico, who led the team in scoring. “We did this for him, it’s all for him.”
From the midway point of the first quarter on, the Raiders never trailed, though the Bulldogs pulled within a basket on multiple occasions thanks to their work on the offensive rebounds.
Each time Oak Hills closed the gap, Sonora found a run with the shooting touch of both Ben Rico and Josh Rodriguez, who led the team with 18 and 17 points, respectively.
“We trusted in each other, we had to keep moving the ball and take time off the shot clock,” Rico said. “We had a couple possessions where we were a little selfish, but once we started finding each other, they couldn’t stop us and that kept us ahead.”
It wasn’t until the fourth quarter, after Rico hit a 3-pointer to put Sonora up 49-39 with 3:04 remaining in the game, that Sonora seemed to have the edge.
Rico scored 11 points in the second half, while Rodriguez helped the team early, with 11 first-half points.
Rico also led the team with eight rebounds and five steals.
“It’s been a year of firsts for us this year,” Murphy said. “We’ve got two guys in Rico and Rodriguez and tonight they showed why they’re special. We told Ben that he’s a beautiful player, he looks great out there, but he’s got to do the dirty stuff tonight, he’s got to rebound and defend and he did that tonight. We don’t win this game without Rico.”
Defensively, the Raiders caused problems inside and out. Junior center Steven Murphy knocked away six shots, while Rico used his reach to cut off passing lanes and force turnovers, which led to four fastbreak layups by either Rodriguez or Adam Marlow.
However, if Oak Hills put up a shot, the Bulldogs found a way to track down offensive rebounds for put-backs or trips to the free throw line to keep it close.
“We had to put bodies in on the rebound and they were killing us with that a bit in the first half,” Marlow said. “But we knew we had to battle back and we just find a way to overcome it, it’s been that way all season.”
Oak Hills (25-5) started well, using that aggressive style to push its way to an early 6-2 lead.
However, after a technical delay, the Raiders stormed back and ended the quarter on a 13-0 run to take a 19-10 lead with Rodriguez hitting a layup before the buzzer.
The Bulldogs slowed down Sonora’s offense in the second quarter, cutting the Raiders’ lead to 27-22 at halftime.
“We knew their guards are really good and we figured we couldn’t stop all of them, but we’d try and stop everyone else,” said Shaun Mora, Oak Hills head coach. “I thought we did a pretty good job of that through three quarters. They would get a run and we’d come back, but we got our heads down a little bit and they stayed even keel and showed that maturity and that’s what won them the game.”
Oak Hills reduced the deficit to three points twice in the third quarter, but Sonora responded with fastbreak points by Rodriguez and two jumpers by Rico, who created space on both attempts near the free-throw line.
Nick Scott, who led the Bulldogs with 12 points, scored eight points in the second half and helped Oak Hills fight back again in the fourth quarter.
But for the second consecutive game, Sonora (28-3) closed out strong and went to Steven Murphy for two baskets to give the Raiders initial separation.
Rico’s 3-pointer put the pressure on and Sonora sealed it with its defense.
“I told our guys that we didn’t want to get in a fight with them because we’d lose,” Mike Murphy said. “They were really physical, they rebounded well. We hadn’t won when we’re beaten on the boards and they probably had a few more than we did, but rebounding, that was their whole thing.”
For Oak Hills, the three wins in the playoffs were the first for the program in its brief history. The Bulldogs were undefeated Mojave River League champions.
“For us to make the playoffs was amazing and to win three games is just icing on the cake, I’m really proud of them,” Mora said. “We wanted to try and prove that we’re not just High Desert basketball, we didn’t want that label. We wanted to show that we could come down and compete with teams. We just want to be known as Oak Hills basketball and I think we did that this year.”
For the Raiders, a matchup with Calabasas awaits in the CIF-SS Division 2A Championship game, which will take place at the Honda Center, Saturday at noon.
“Nothing’s really phased us so far,” Marlow said. “This is a dream come true and I think we’re going to be ready, we’re not going to back down, whatever happens.”