Portola phenom

The Bulldogs keep winning behind Moka Saiki, the school’s ‘greatest of all time.’

For the most exciting brand of basketball in Orange County right now, get out and catch a Portola High girls game.

They’re the Golden State Warriors of Irvine, racing up and down the court, launching threes from 25 feet out (6 feet behind the three-point line) and demoralizing opponents by scores of 81-30, 88-17 and 87-46.

The team’s Steph Curry? That’d be the one affectionately nicknamed “Mobot” for her calm-under-pressure demeanor: team captain Moka Saiki.

“She’s the GOAT – Greatest of All Time – at Portola,” Coach Brian Barham says. “Nobody can touch her, in the boys or girls program. When she elevates and flicks her wrist, I’m stunned when it doesn’t go in, because her shot is so pretty and her footwork is immaculate.”

Last year, she averaged 20 points a game, and this year, she hung 33 points on Sage Hill – “the No. 2 team in OC, that’s Kobe Bryant’s team,” Barham notes.

She’s well past the milestone of a 1,000-point career – and holds every major career-scoring record at Portola, including points, free throws made, field goals made, free-throw percentage, three-point field goal percentage and steals.

So where does this prowess come from? Believe it or not, it begins with a love story.

Portola High girls basketball coach Brian Barham calls Moka Saiki the school’s “GOAT – Greatest of All Time” in both the boys and girls programs.

Destined for greatness on the court

Moka’s parents, Junji and Reiko, fell in love while playing on a co-ed basketball team in Tokyo. When Junji’s job with Altair Engineering took him to Irvine, the family settled in Woodbury.

“Because they met playing basketball, I feel like they always had in mind that I’d be playing,” says Moka, who recalls learning to play at a court in Woodbury Commons when she was in first grade.

“It definitely took some time before I could even hit the rim,” she says.

By fourth grade, she was a rising star in club basketball. Her parents (who both still play in basketball leagues) filmed every game, which they’d review the next day.

“They’d point out my highlights – and where I could’ve done better,” Moka says. “My mom was more technical, in the little details, and my dad taught me the release, how I flick my wrist.”

One thing no one had to teach her: playing basketball meant making new friends.

“Some of my best friends I made through basketball,” she says. “I still talk to almost half my team from fourth grade.”

By high school, she was practicing up to three hours a day. And she’d developed another technique: showing no emotion on the court.

“Sometimes things upset me, but I know if I react, it could hurt my game,” she says. “So I focus on always staying locked in.”

Winning basketball

The Portola Bulldogs are quite possibly the smallest team in Orange County, with a backcourt that averages 5 feet tall.

“We come out in warmups and everyone looks at us and goes, ‘Oh, we’re going to kill these guys,’ ” Barham says. “And then my little guys chuck it from almost half-court – and they hit it.”

Barham has forged this undersized team into overachievers: They average over 70 shots a game – many from so deep that other teams haven’t begun to cover them yet. And in a league where most teams score 40-45 points a game, the Bulldogs average over 70 points a game.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Barham says. “I think our margin of victory in Irvine right now is like 45 points.”

And the main reason? The Mobot – an amazing athlete who likes to bake cookies on her days off, who’s earned a 4.3 grade-point average studying math and science, and who can flick her wrist to score from anywhere on the floor.

So get ready. The season ends this month. And the playoffs are coming.


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