With the CIF Southern Section Open semifinal victory well in hand Etiwanda head coach Stan Delus is still coaching and preaching defense
Harold Abend/Prep2Prep

Etiwanda comes out smoking hot and rolls into Southern Section Open title game

February 18, 2024

ETIWANDA Calif. – Talk about coming out with a purpose.

State CIF Southern Section Open Division No. 2 seed Etiwanda (28-3) came out with a definite goal in mind and that was to make an early statement in its Pool B third round match-up with No. 3 seed Ontario Christian-Ontario – and the Eagles indeed made a declaration of their prowess almost before the fans could warm their seats.

The result was the host Eagles showed just why they are among the nation’s finest programs after they opened up an impressive 33-5 lead in the late first quarter, and then repelled any notions of a comeback by the visiting no-quit Knights girls in a 75-56 victory.

The win sends head coach Stan Delus and his Eagles girls into the CIFSS Open title game next Friday at Cal Baptist in Riverside against Sierra Canyon-Chatsworth. Top-seeded Sierra Canyon was an 81-61 winner over fourth-seeded Mater Dei-Santa Ana.

As has been the case all year it was the big three for the Eagles that took center stage, 2023 State Junior of the Year Kennedy Smith, 2023 State Sophomore of the Year Aliyahna “Puff” Morris, and junior transfer Grace Knox. All three filled the stat sheet with Knox and Smith getting double-doubles and Morris just missing by a single rebound.

“I feel like sometimes I get in a mode and just go after it,” said the 6-3 Knox, who finished with a monster double-double 36 points (two three-pointers) and 16 rebounds with two steals and two blocks. “No matter who’s in my way on offense, and on rebounds I’m going to go and snatch it.”

Smith, a 5-6 freshman that can seemingly score from anywhere on the court, and is the leading reporter scorer in the CIF Southern Section and No. 2 in the state at 35.0 points per game, led Ontario Christian with 34 points, including seven three-pointers, with three of them from NBA-range, and with one from at least 5-feet beyond where the NBA line would have been.

Despite her scoring prowess Smith was stymied early on with Etiwanda using Smith, Morris, Knox, sophomore Arynn Finley and senior Mykelle Richards to guard her. The result was Smith missed her first six shots including three three-pooints attempts. When she finally tallied it was a basket with 2:10 left in the first quarter, but it came with Ontario Christian facing a 28-3 deficit.

“We wanted to come out with more energy than them and get a head start because we knew at one point Kaleena (Smith) was going to have her run,” Knox remarked.

As was previously mentioned Knox wasn’t the only player from Etiwanda to crash the boards and score in double-digits. In fact, Etiwanda out-rebounded Ontario Christian with a whopping 56 rebounds for the Eagles to 26 for the Knights. In a first half that saw Etiwanda build a 47-22 lead, the rebounding advantage was 32-10.

Smith, who was recently named to the McDonald’s All American team, had 13 points and 12 rebounds with six assists and four steals, and although she only had four points in the first half, she was a major force along with Knox in the fourth quarter after Ontario Christian had cut it to 53-43 late in the third quarter. The two combined for 18 of the Eagles 20 points in the final period, and nine rebounds.

Morris did most of her damage in the first half where she had 14 of her 16 points, both of her three-pointers, six of her nine rebounds, and three of her five assists. Finley didn’t score but she had eight rebounds and an assist.

Knox talked about Etiwanda knowing Smith would have her run and it came late in the third quarter. Ontario got it to a 53-34 on a pair of free-throws by senior Amanda Ajobiewe and that’s when Smith went ballistic with back-to-back-to-back three pointers including one that was so deep it had the Knights faithful in a frenzy.

That got it to the previously mentioned 10-point deficit of 53-43 before a basket by smith to end the quarter made it to 55-43 and seemed to break the Ontario Christian momentum.

Knox got a put back and then hit a three-pointer and that made it 60-43. Smith followed an Ontario basket with a three-point play, and then Knox scored, and just like that the game was pretty much sealed at 65-45 Eagles.

Smith got her final points on another long three-pointer that made it 71-56, but with time running out and Ontario Christian still trying to foul, Smith and Morris each converted a pair of free-throws to provide the final margin.

“We knew they would come back. Basketball is a game of runs and they made a nice run to get it down to ten,” Delus remarked. “The one thing is we put so much pressure on them all game I knew they would but able to sustain it in the fourth quarter because we knew that we still had the pieces to finish the game the right way, and we did that. I know how tough my team is and I know my team can overcome and sustain overcome adversity because that’s all we’ve ever gone through.”

“I think we got a little bit comfortable,” Delus continued. “But I think the biggest issue is we got it into our heads a little bit with some frustration of things that weren’t going right, but I’m still proud of them because playing the schedule that we did all year and going through similar things made us know we can still focus at the right times.”

Ontario Christian (27-4) is still alive and at this point it’s looking like if the state CIF decides to take four teams from the Southern Section for the SoCal Open Regional playoffs, the Knights girls will be chosen. If only three teams are taken it would seem Ontario Christian will still be open bound since they were the CIFSS Open No. 3 seed ahead of Mater Dei.

For Etiwanda the journey is far from over and Smith knows it’s going to take preparation and hard work to make it to the Golden 1 Area in Sacramento on March 9 for the state CIF Open Division championship.

“We’ve been taking it by game and now we’re made it to the finals. Now we have to prep the whole week next week to prepare for them,” Smith said in reference to Sierra Canyon.

“We’ve seen them four times already, and although we haven’t seen them this year what know what they have,” Smith continued. “We know game planning for them and preparing to play at a bigger stage than we had today is what we have to do next week.”

The teams have split the four meetings over the past two years but neither has won two straight games. In 2022 Etiwanda lost the Southern Section Open title in a 69-57 defeat but came back to win the state CIF Southern Regional Open championship with a 60-51 victory. Last season it was the opposite. Etiwanda lost 70-57 in the CIFSS Open championship but came back to post a 55-54 victory in the SoCal Open title game en route to a 69-67 victory over Archbishop Mitty-San Jose in the state CIF Open Division title game.

“World War number five,” Delus mused about the impending match-up with Sierra Canyon. “We’ve had a lot of battles and this is going to be another war.”

The battle will be next Friday evening in Riverside.

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