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Okpala takes his game, Esperanza to another level in win over Crossroads
ANAHEIM - Early in the fourth quarter, the Esperanza student section told the Crossroads of Santa Monica basketball team what everyone in the gym had already figured out.
After a tough drive and basket for Kezie Okpala, the students chanted “You can’t stop him.”
Crossroads didn’t then and couldn’t through the other moments of the game as the Stanford-bound Okpala scored 46 points to lead the host Aztecs to a 64-51 victory in the CIF Southern California Division II regional semifinals Tuesday.
His 46 points was a single-game school record; the school's previous high, 43 points, was set by Greg Artman in the 1979-80 season.
The Aztecs (28-3) will host Pasadena in the regional final Saturday at 6 p.m.
“He’s a gamer,” Esperanza coach Mark Hill said of Okpala. “The stronger the competition … Tonight going up against (Crossroads senior) Ira Lee and Shareef O’Neal, he stepped up, but we saw that at the beginning of the year when we played in Chicago against Zion Williamson and he outplayed Zion. He (Okpala) raises his whole level when he gets against guys of that level.”
Okpala missed his first three shots, but closed the opening quarter with a personal 7-2 run for a 12-8 Esperanza lead. That was as a close as the Roadrunners would get, either in the game or keeping Okpala in check.
Okpala scored 21 of his 46 in the first half.
“I know what we’re capable of,” Okpala said. “We played really well. In the beginning, with the big crowd, you kind of get a little anxious, but after we settled in, we played well.
“I played (club) with Ira Lee and I wasn’t half the player I am now. I wanted to come out and show my buddy that I’ve gotten better. I thought this summer that I wasn’t good at all, to be honest.”
The Aztecs led, 30-21, entering the third quarter. Okpala scored 10 in the third and 16 in the fourth to lead the way to the victory.
He would like nothing more than to close out his home career Saturday with another victory and send the Aztecs off to the CIF State final to cap a special four years.
“A lot of people think that you have go to a big school,” Okpala said. “But I think that personal development is key and we have great players around me, great coach too. It has been great.”
Senior Brendan Harrick chipped in with 12 points for the Aztecs.