By Erik Markus
La Habra Journal
The Sonora Raiders endured a slow first quarter to defeat Gahr High School and win the CIF 3AA Southern Section title, winning 66-54.
The Raiders trailed by as many as nine points, but were propelled by a 16-0 run to surge past the Gladiators and secure the title.
Gahr scored the first six points of the fourth quarter, but the Raiders took over from there.
Down 51-44 with 6:45 left to play, the Raiders came out of the huddle with their sights set on victory, rather than a repeat of last years losing performance.
“We were about five minutes away from finishing it off,” Gahr High School head coach Ricky Roper said.
“We know exactly how Gahr feels, we’ve been through it. We all decided you know we’re not going to feel like this again,” Ben Rico said
Rico finished the game with 12 points and 14 rebounds and played the entire game.
Buckets by Rico and Ashaad Womack brought the Raiders within striking distance before Christian Rhodes tied the game at 51 with a three.
“I had no idea it was tied,” Rhodes said as he explained how difficult it was to see the score above their heads. “I looked up, I was like I just tied the game, we’re gonna win this right now. At that point I knew we were gonna get it.”
Tied at 51 the Raiders steady defense allowed them to stretch their lead while keeping Gahr at bay. With a commanding lead and only a minute to go Josh Rodriguez and Rhodes sealed the game at the free throw line.
Rodriguez was the leading scorer with 16 points, eight coming in the fourth quarter.
“Some time in almost every game is going to be Josh’s time. He gets everybody involved, because we know that at any time in the game, he can do just about whatever he wants, he’s a special player,” Murphy said.
The game started with the two teams taking different approaches. The Gladiators started out red hot from behind the arc, knocking down 7-15 in the first half.
“That’s their game, they shoot about 40 threes a game, but at one point they hit 7 of 10,” Murphy said.
Meanwhile, Sonora committed to trading threes for twos.
The Raiders held a distinct size advantage, which allowed Steven Murphy to capitalize on both ends with 13 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks with no fouls.
“We couldn’t stay in front of those guards all the time and we were forcing them into Steven, and if he didn’t block the shot I think he altered almost every one of those shots,” Murphy said about his center.
Murphy was the Raiders’ most reliable target early in the game making all four of his shots. He finished the game shooting 6-8
“We can’t win a CIF championship without him, we got to have him in the middle, he anchors our defense and as you saw today, he was definitely the anchor of our team,” Murphy said.
Womack bounced back from two early fouls to score eight of his 10 points in the third quarter.
“I had two early ones and I knew I had to help my team out more, so when I came out in the third, I just had to do my job, finish everything and that’s what I did,” Womack said.
“That was our game plan, give them the ball and let them finish,” Rhodes said.
The hot shooting Gladiators cooled off quickly and never seemed to snap back into form shooting 7-33 in the second half.
As the Raiders steady play continued they were able to gradually chip away. Kevin Marlow played all of the second quarter and added 3 threes in the second and third quarters.
Marlow came into the gym the week before in preparation for the game, which helped him feel comfortable shooting with this type of pressure.
“When you put a sophomore in, you never know what you’re gonna get,” Murphy said, “I was in the gym from 8:30 to 10 with him and he shot 2,500 shots. There’s a reason kids make those shots, not just a coincidence.
The Gladiators used a press the entire game, which is something the Raiders were unfamiliar to.
“We prepared for it all week and we were ready for their pressure and it showed in the outcome,” Rhodes said.
The turnovers were high, but between Rhodes and Rodriguez they were able to adjust to the pressure and move the ball effectively.
Sonora played a tough schedule in the preseason to pave the way for another run at a title, with 4 of 5 starters returning from last year’s team.
Experience from last year definitely came to the rescue, as the Raiders maintained a steady focus on inside scoring, and were able to persevere through the Gladiators hot shooting.
Rhodes especially benefitted from the experience, pushing through a rough beginning of the game.
“Junior year, if I’m having a bad game, it could take me out for the rest of the game and I’d be done, being a senior, being more confident I’m able to stick in there when I’m turning the ball over or something, I’ll come back and I’m ready for the next play,” Rhodes said.
The Raiders will keep this championship, but both teams will continue to play. Sonora plays Valhalla High School on Wednesday May 11 and Gahr will play El Cajon in CIF regional playoffs.
For a gallery of photos from the game, go to: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lahabrajournal/sets/72157648982044893/