ONTARIO, Calif. --
The nation's top boys basketball team played three games in one Saturday night. Luckily for Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.)
, two of those three mini games went in its favor.
The Monarchs, ranked No. 1 in the Xcellent 25
and the MaxPreps Computer Rankings
, advanced to play for a California Interscholastic Federation Open Division state title with a 59-54 victory over Westchester (Los Angeles)
at Citizen's Business Bank Arena. It was a blowout at first, then a furious comeback, and finally a lesson in clutch late-minute execution. Mater Dei was the one that created the blowout early and was the one that finished things.
The Monarchs jetted out to a 26-8 lead with 5:46 left in the second quarter, then got knocked back on their heels in the fourth quarter, falling behind by as many as six points before pulling out the win in the Southern California Open Division Regional Final. It will be the fourth-straight trip to the CIF final in Sacramento for the Monarchs, who have played in 14 state title games.
Star Stanley Johnson
did his usual star thing, posting 19 points and a game-high nine rebounds to go with clutch fourth-quarter free throws. And super sophomore M.J. Cage
rocked the rim down low with 13 points.
But Mater Dei coach Gary McKnight singled out La'vette Parker
for play that helped keep the team undefeated. Parker was lethal in the first half with 13 points on 3-for-4 shooting from long range, and finished with 15. The junior guard played a huge role in the early blowout.
"That's what he's capable of, he can do that any given night. I told the kids this week 'Who's gonna be the guy who steps up?'" recalled McKnight, the state's winningest coach. "I
know Stanley's going to be Stanley, Rex (Pflueger)
is Rex, Cage is Cage. I thought (Parker) shot extremely well and they got him the ball."
Of course in the postgame afterglow, the attention goes to the winning team, the undefeated team and the nation's top-ranked team. However, Westchester also showed it was capable of pulling off the upset in a matchup of teams that have some of the Golden State's best resumes. The Comets came in owning six state titles and their legendary coach Ed Azzam is eighth in state history when it comes to wins, according to Cal-Hi Sports.
They were down 19-7 after one quarter, then 35-21 at the half. The third quarter was when they started to come alive, as a 10-0 run got the deficit from 14 to four, and then a fourth-quarter blast of the same margin gave the Comets a five-point lead with 4:34 left in the game.
hit a step-back jumper to cap that run, and Elijah Stewart
connected on a 3-pointer with 2:46 left that forged a six-point advantage.
Stewart, signed to play at Loyola Marymount, finished with a team-high 19 points on 8 of 19 shooting. He said that big make didn't make him think the win was sealed.
See the MaxPreps California boys basketball playoff brackets
"There's always time left. When you play Mater Dei you can
never assume anything," the senior guard said. "They have too many good players on that team."
And they showed it, with Arizona signee Johnson leading the way.
Johnson canned a pair of free throws with 2:34 left to make it a four-point deficit, Parker grabbed an offensive rebound and made two freebies after being fouled to get it to 53-51 with 1:52 left and then Johnson dished to Isaiah Juarez
after going hard on the baseline for a layup that tied it with 1:27 left.
Pflueger nailed two free throws, then Johnson made two more before Stewart went 1-for-3 on a set of free throws, and Johnson came back to sink two more to make it 59-54 with 10 seconds left.
Long story short, Johnson was big-time at the line, and so were his teammates when the game was on the line.
"They don't let you get to the rim. They're either going to stop you or foul you. I anticipated that all
of playoffs, teams wouldn't want to give me free (baskets). I've been there before. I
get calm late in the game when I'm at the line and it's easy for me," said Johnson, who was 11-for-12 at the line.
Azzam said it just wasn't meant to be in the late going.
"We turned the ball over a couple times and they got more aggressive defensively and they made shots when they needed to make shots," he said.
Westchester had a dreadful showing early on with a 3-for-17 start from the field in the first quarter and a 4-for-14 performance in the second quarter. The Comets were 13-for-29 in the second half.
"In first half we weren't playing poorly, we just didn't make shots. Later on we got some offensive boards, we did the things we needed to do to come out on top. We just didn't finish," Azzam said.
So now the nation's best team moves on to Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento and will face Bishop O'Dowd (Oakland, Calif.)
for the Open Division title. It's yet another trip to Sacramento, and another shot at a national title. The Monarchs will play Saturday night for the ultimate prize, and a guaranteed national title against a 28-4 Dragons squad if they can win.
The teams met on Dec. 21 this season and the Monarchs needed overtime to win 63-59. Click here to see details from the contest
Click through for more photos from the Saturday action: