The Valencia boys basketball team traveled to the city of Rancho Cucamonga for the second time in two weeks to take on the Cougars, this time in a CIF State Championships regional semifinal matchup at Los Osos High School on Saturday.
The Vikings built an early advantage, but were unable to hang on, giving up the lead midway through the third quarter on their way to a 78-72 loss to Rancho Cucamonga.
Senior Richard Kawakami set the tone early for Valencia, driving hard to the basket through three Rancho Cucamonga defenders for the score.
Josh Assiff joined him in the paint, using his length and athleticism to score in the post, helping lead the Vikings to a 30-24 advantage at the end of the first quarter.
Kawakami and Assiff combined for 20 of the Vikings’ first 30 points. The former finished with 27 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and a steal and the latter added 18 points, 14 rebounds and three steals.
“I told him before the game that none of these guys can stop you. Be strong getting to the basket, be savvy. I think he should shoot the ball more because he is a very good shooter and that will come. Rich is dangerous, he came to play,” Assiff said about his senior counterpart. “I thought Rich and I did everything we could. We left it all on the floor, that’s why I’m really proud of us.”
“Rich was the best player on the floor tonight,” Valencia head coach Bill Bedgood said. “Last game we had Rich for eight minutes because of foul trouble. This game he was really determined to stay in the game and keep battling.”
Valencia started the second quarter with great energy, as junior Kevin Konrad scored on a tip-in and then senior Nader Hussein found him down low for another bucket. The junior big man finished with seven points, six rebounds and a steal.
Shortly after, Kawakami grabbed an offensive rebound and scored to give the Vikings a 37-26 lead.
However, Rancho Cucamonga stayed in the game by hitting tough contested shots, including a handful of 3-pointers several feet behind the arc.
Junior CJ Stroud led the Cougars with 20 points and the senior trio of Shaden Knight, Tyler Carter and Myles Jones scored 15 points apiece.
“They are a scrappy team, they play hard, they are used to playing from behind. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team that’s better at keeping their composure when they’re down. They keep fighting and fighting,” Bedgood said. “It’s almost like they play better when they’re behind it’s crazy. They get on these little runs. They are such an emotional team and feed off the crowd. Tonight they shot the ball well and when they’re shooting the ball that well it’s tough to stop.”
“Hats off to them, they are a great team, they hit tough shots. We played good definsvely, but we could have done a few things better that could have kept us in the game longer,” junior Grant Kim said. “Simple, mental mistakes at the end cost us, but I feel like both teams played a great game today.”
Carrying a 48-42 lead into halftime, Valencia looked poised to maintain its advantage, but a barrage of 3-pointers from Rancho Cucamonga cut the deficit quickly.
The Cougars grabbed their first lead at the 3:41 mark in the third quarter and outscored the Vikings 20-11 in the frame to carry a three-point lead into the final quarter.
Kawakami and Assiff once again did their best to keep Valencia in it by attacking the basket ferociously and getting to the free throw line. Kawakami went 7-of-10 from the charity stripe and Assiff went 6-of-9.
A few missed baskets down low and missed free throws cost the Vikings as the clock soon became their secondary opponent.
Rancho Cucamonga scored on an offensive rebound with minutes remaining and then made its free throws to seal the game.
“I thought we played better tonight than we did last time to be honest, they just shot the ball a lot better this time,” Bedgood said. “I felt like offensively we got up 10 in the first half, we couldn’t play much better offensively and they hit some shots and kept hanging around. I’m proud of the way my guys played. They left it all on the floor and I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud of a team at the end of a season.”
After the game, Bedgood and the Vikings’ coaching staff gathered their visibly emotional players in the locker room and told them how proud they are of them.
It was bittersweet, as the Vikings felt that they could have won the game and gone further into the state tournament, but knew they had just completed the most successful basketball campaign in Valencia history.
“There’s a lot of emotion, for me it’s my last basketball game ever,” senior Nick Jenney said fighting back tears. “Senior year goes by really fast, everyone tells you it but you don’t realize it. I’m really proud of how we played. We had an incredible season.”
“I got some tears out, but it’s one of those things I’m a little disappointed, I thought we should have won the game,” Assiff said. “At the end of the day, we put Valencia on the map. I’m blessed to be a part of this team.”
All the Vikings gathered together outside of the locker room and reminisced on the highlights of the season. They shared laughs and tears, embracing one another while they let the moment sink in.
One thing was evident: this team is a family.
“I think this team grew closer than any other team in history. This team is truly a family, we all care for one another,” Hussein said. “I know we’re not losing contact with each other, that’s how close we’ve become. We all love each other to death.”
“The bond we’ve had this season, we’ve grown so close this year starting from summer, it just clicked from the start. When people say a team is family, this was really family, a brotherhood,” Kim said. “Everybody looked out for each other, the seniors looking out for the younger guys, the younger guys wishing the best for the seniors. The bond is unbreakable with these guys.”