Canyon girls basketball still learning after loss against El Camino Real

Canyon senior Ellie Villavicencio drives into the paint in a non-league matchup with El Camino at Canyon High School Friday evening. Cory Rubin/ The Signal

The Canyon girls basketball coaching staff always has one request for its players: Watch basketball.

“NBA, college, whatever it is, just watch it,” said Cowboys coach Jessica Haayer. “And don’t watch the ball, because that’s what kids watch. It’s off the ball that we preach. But yeah, just learning the game. IQ is so important in this game and I think being young, they need to watch as much as they can.”

The inexperienced roster is taking note of their observations and improving game by game, most recently in a 52-44 loss to El Camino Real on Friday at Canyon in the Brentwood Winter Invitational.

By the end of the first quarter, the Conquistadors had eclipsed the Cowboys by a score of 15-7, capped by a 3-pointer from Orelle Gelbart. Canyon got back on track in the second quarter, thanks in part to junior Chidinma Okafor.

Starting at the 2:30 mark, Okafor took off for a six-point scoring run that helped her team close the gap to 33-18 heading into halftime. Throughout the rest of the game, Okafor, who is playing her first year of varsity basketball, capitalized on second-chance opportunities created by both herself and her teammates.

“Our coach told us that they have like, a shorter team, they don’t really have like, a big as tall as me and some others,” Okafor said. “So I wanted to like, focus on boxing out and like, getting the second chances. They were really important because that’s how we scored with the mismatch in size.”

Okafor finished the night with 19 points, 17 rebounds and five blocks. She was followed by fellow bigs Riley LaPlant, who had six points and three rebounds and Lucy Collins who had five points and four rebounds.

El Camino Real continued to use its grittiness to its advantage, especially on defense in the third and held onto the lead at 43-27.

“The hardest part about tonight was probably the amount of pressure they put and like, mostly the pressure,” Okafor said. “And like, just the size difference and everything. And not really having that sort of like, center presence and like, big presence to go up against.”

With the final buzzer nearing, Canyon made one final scoring effort with five minutes to go in the game. Ellie Villavicencio scored on a layup to make it 47-33, then Collins sank two free throws. Kiki Taufaasau made one final basket with 10 seconds left.

The Cowboys are now 2-1 in the Brentwood Winter Invitational after wins against Ventura and Birmingham. They continue tournament play against Brentwood today at 4 p.m.

“Get better week by week and league is a priority to us, so by December 14, we want to be a whole other team,” Haayer said. “So that’s kind of on our list now to learn and develop game by game.”

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