June 25, 2024

OC Sports Zone: Community First

Portola girls basketball team well prepared for CIF playoff challenge this week

Portola players are joined (far left) by player development coach Miles Song, former Servite and JSerra point guard and members of the Bulldogs boys basketball team. (Photo courtesy Portola athletics).

Portola High School’s girls basketball team has been battled tested through a tough league and non-league schedule.

The Bulldogs hope it pays dividends as they begin the CIF Division 1 playoffs Thursday night against Paramount at Paramount. Paramount (21-7) is the No. 2 representative from the Gateway League.

“We played our toughest schedule ever to prepare ourselves for the teams we’ll face in the playoffs,” said Portola Coach Brian Barham. “The competitive equity between the neighborhood schools in the PCL was great this year.”

Portola (22-5) is led by Kira Watanabe, who is averaging 15.5 points, 7.7 assists and 3.8 steals a game.

Watanabe is the single game, season and career record holder at Portola in assists (15, 208, 609) , steals (13, 118, 383) and three-pointers made (11, 92, 225) and has the most wins with 76, according to Barham. 

“It’s not easy replacing a 20 point per game scorer like Moka Saiki,” Barham said. “Kira took her game to a completely different level to help make sure we didn’t take a step back. She’s an extremely special player. I doubt we’ll see someone like her again. And our sophomores, Kara Niho (nine point average) and Amelia Booth (six point, eight rebound a game average) really helped make us a more dynamic team on both sides of the ball.” 

Other standouts are Nina Saki, who is averaging 11.2 points, three assists and 2.1 steals a game and Kalynne Abraham-Mendez, who is averaging nine points a game, 6.1 rebounds and 1.9 steals a game.

“Kay was our most impactful defensive player usually guarding the other team’s best player,” Barham said.

Portola has been effective from three-point range and had a couple of records broken this year, Barham said. 

“Kara Niho started the season out fast hitting 10 three’s in our first game of the season against Cypress,” Barham said. “Kira Watanabe re-broke that record when she hit 11 three’s in three quarters against Edison at the Christina Mauser Tournament. And then Nina Saiki tied that record with 11 three’s in a 42-point performance at Northwood.

“We are the only team we’ve heard of with three players who have hit 10 plus three’s in a game in a single season. As a team, we have already hit 298 three’s this season, which is a CIF SS record according to the record book. We have had five different players score 20 plus and three different players score 30 plus. I think that is a testament to the offensive prowess of our program and the freedom our style gives our players.” 

Portola’s league schedule included games with Sage Hill (24-2). Sage Hill won the league title with a 6-0 record and was ranked fifth in the open division in the final CIF poll of the year.

Portola, which wound up ranked No. 16 in the CIF Division 1 poll, was second at 4-2.

“Our league also gave us the unique opportunity to compete against the number four team in the state, twice,” Barham said. “We believe our battles against Sage Hill leave us better prepared for the size we’ll see in Division 1. We’re relying on our speed and shooting to offset our lack of size. We’ve been successful with it all season and hope that continues this week. “

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