Castaic basketball headed to CIF finals, holds off Dunn

Castaic celebrates winning the CIF semifinals on Friday, Feb. 16. Habeba Mostafa/ The Signal
Castaic celebrates winning the CIF semifinals on Friday, Feb. 16. Habeba Mostafa/ The Signal
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A severe height disadvantage and the pressure of the CIF semifinal were no match for Castaic Coyotes boys’ basketball on Friday. 

Castaic held off a rallying Dunn Earwigs team in the second half to secure a spot in the CIF Division 5AA championship game, winning the semifinal bout, 76-68, at home. 

The Earwigs (16-10) stole all the momentum from the Coyotes (18-14) in the second half and erased a 13-point deficit to tie the score in the fourth quarter. 

Dunn was fueled by one of its three Earwigs standing above 6 feet, 7 inches tall, junior Seal Diouf. 

Diouf broke loose in the third quarter, scoring 12 of his 32 points to put Dunn in the game. Diouf was constantly met with double teams in the post but still found ways to score with some solid footwork and seven dunks. 

Diouf also added 15 rebounds and two blocks. 

The Earwigs got scoring from everyone in the fourth quarter, but Castaic senior Giovanni Valentin seemingly had an answer for every bucket. 

“I wasn’t counting (points),” Valentin said. “I just let the game come to me. It was just that type of night for me today.” 

Valentin took over in the fourth, where he added 15 of his game-high 35 points. The senior had a 3-point attempt blocked by the lengthy Diouf early in the fourth but went right back at him a few plays later and drilled a step-back three-ball. 

Valentin played well all over the court as he totaled four assists and as many steals. 

Late turnovers cost the Earwigs dearly as the Coyotes piled on the points, forcing Dunn to foul late in the game. Valentin iced the game from the free throw line, making all of four of his attempts in crunch time to the cheers of “MVP” from the Castaic stands. 

“It felt amazing,” Valentin said. “My friends came out and supported us. I love to perform well in front of them. It was a fun environment to be in.” 

Valentin started the game off hot, and hit back-to-back 3-pointers in the first and second quarters.  

Castaic got terrific outings from all of its Giovannis, as Giovanni Guardado also brought stellar energy and 10 points off the bench. 

Senior point guard Lucas Milan added 13 points and two assists for the Coyotes. 

Dunn’s other towering players were a little reluctant to attack the paint. Senior Latif Diouf played more on the perimeter but attacked the interior infrequently. Latif showcased some solid passing and defensive skills, and tallied up 14 points, five rebounds and two steals. 

The Earwigs got a boost on the perimeter from sophomore guard Ilani Alavi, who knocked down some timely 3-pointers and added 11 points. 

After a 16-16 first quarter, Castaic pulled ahead in the second. The team attacked the paint quickly with both Guardado and Valentin knocking down three buckets each in the quarter.  

The Coyotes were pushed to the limit but did solid work sealing off passing lanes to the junior Diouf in the paint, forcing other Earwigs to shoot. 

“Those aren’t Division 5AA players, they’re Division 1 talents,” Castaic coach Dominique Butler said of the Earwigs. “They’re a heck of a team and they’re well coached. We knew that we had to prepare, stamina, agility and being quicker than them. Then adding the strength to it as well, too. So kudos to the guys that worked extremely hard throughout practice and got us to this point.” 

Castaic had already proven it belonged in the playoffs after multiple wins from the at-large team. Now has the opportunity to hang a banner in its gym. 

“We knew we were good but we had some troubles,” Valentin said. “In the beginning of the season we were doing really well but towards the middle we had some trouble but we knew if we made the playoffs we could go on a run.” 

The middle of the season and league play was a speed bump for Castaic but Butler knew all along if his team could find a way on the bracket, the Coyotes could rally. 

“It wasn’t all according to plan but we never gave up,” Butler said. “We tell these guys, ‘You gotta keep working hard and doing the right things and it’s never over.’ A lot of these guys have a lot of personal stories of perseverance and they fight through certain things. They’ve fought and this is what we get out of that.” 

The Coyotes will take on the top-seeded El Segundo Eagles in the CIF title game next weekend at a neutral location that is yet to be determined. 

“It means a lot (to get to this point). We persevered and we fought,” Butler said. “We had a lot of different obstacles along the way with injuries, sit-outs or people leaving and that’s fine. It’s just the next-guy-up mentality. We keep working extremely hard and we’re going to reap the benefits of the hard work, and I’m super proud of these guys. I couldn’t ask for a better team.” 

Gallery below: Photos by Habeba Mostafa/The Signal

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