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By Loren Kopff
@LorenKopff on Twitter
The Gahr High girls basketball team made sure there would not be a repeat in its California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section Division 3AA first round playoff game of last season. And it was junior Naomi Ellis who set the tone early with a solid first quarter before continuing her dominance throughout the game.
Ellis scored 11 points, including three three-pointers, had three rebounds, an assist and a block all in the first quarter as Gahr posted a 52-40 home win over El Monte High last Thursday night. It was Gahr’s first playoff victory since the 2012-2013 season when the Lady Gladiators advanced to the Division III-AAA championship game. The first round win was a far cry from last season when the Lady Gladiators were blasted by host Sonora High 61-15 in the first round.
“We just wanted to win it,” Ellis said. “It’s first round and…last year we got blown out. We’re at our house, so it was a better situation for us.
“I think we’re more of a team now,” she continued. “We’ve worked together and we’ve been bonding more. Last year it was so separated. We were against each other; we didn’t lift each other up.”
“I think it was great for these girls,” said Gahr head coach Rob Godwin. “They’ve worked hard all season. I’m proud of them. We could have done better, but a few of the girls we brought up, this is their first time in this type of game. So overall, I’m glad we have the girls who got to see it last year when we did get blown out, and I think they came in with a different attitude and was looking to win this game.”
After Gahr found itself down 5-2 a little over three minutes into the game, it went on a 16-0 run and never looked back. The first three-pointer from Ellis put the Lady Gladiators in front for good at 8-5 with 3:24 left in the quarter. She would then score eight straight points over the next 2:09.before junior Dezirae Smith scored off of one of her three steals with less than a minute remaining in the stanza.
Just past the midway point of the second quarter, senior Alana Soltis had one of her team-high five thefts and passed to Smith whose basket made it 27-11. Then with 2:01 left in the half, two free throws from Smith put Gahr up by 19 points, its largest margin of the game.
The Lady Gladiators had a 15-point halftime lead but saw that dwindle down to six points after the Lions began the second half on a 13-4 run that lasted five minutes. After that, Gahr would regroup and scored seven of the last eight points of the quarter.
“We didn’t box out,” Ellis said. “That’s all it was. They got offensive rebounds on us.”
“We did get a little relaxed,” Godwin said. “And then the girls tensed up a little bit. But you have to know at that point, [we] just have to relax and let’s run our plays and do what we’re supposed to do.”
The last run for Gahr, 9-2 over a 5:19 span, proved to be the deciding factor and sent the Lady Gladiators into last Saturday’s second round game against Oxnard-based Pacifica High where it would lose 51-49. But against El Monte, Ellis led everyone with 19 points and pulled down eight rebounds while Smith added 10 points and grabbed nine rebounds. Soltis, who rolled left ankle with 3:40 left in the game, added eight points and four assists while junior Kimya Oliver and sophomore Hannah Kumiyama each had six rebounds. As a team, Gahr had 13 steals and forced another seven turnovers.
“The man to man defense is our best defense,” Ellis said. “We’ve been working on that all year and it’s been getting us close to teams like Lynwood and Downey. We’ve been scoring good on them, basically.” “I think in the first couple of minutes, we were slow and sluggish,” Godwin said. “But once we started trusting one another and moving the ball around and finding the open shots, we started putting them up. Naomi played tremendous for us today; she’s been playing tremendous all season. I’m glad we have her on our team.”
The Lady Gladiators finished the season at 15-12, the program’s first winning campaign since 2012-2013, and figures to be solid again despite losing two starters and a key member coming off the bench.