Top-rated Mater Dei of Santa Ana locks up the No. 1 seed in the SoCal Open Division regional by defeating upset-minded Chino Hills to capture the Southern Section’s first-ever open division title. Stanley Johnson leads way with 28 points and 15 rebounds as Monarchs win 22nd section title under Gary McKnight. Chino Hills also doesn’t officially declare to opt up to play in SoCal Open Division regional.
Perfection means doing the little things to get better. For the state’s — and possibly the nation’s — best player, that meant practicing his free throws leading up to Saturday night’s CIF Southern Section Open Division championship game at the Honda Center in Anaheim.
That player is Mater Dei’s Stanley Johnson and he was not happy with his 3-of-9 performance at the line in the Monarchs’ Tuesday semifinal win over J.W. North of Riverside. He worked on his shots from the charity stripe in practice and it paid off down the stretch in the fourth quarter against Chino Hills with the open division title on the line. Johnson made eight-of-eight in the fourth period, 13-of-16 in the game, and finished with a game-highs of 28 points and 14 rebounds in Mater Dei’s 48-44 victory.
“It’s a continuous struggle for me to be a better free throw shooter,” Johnson said. “I wanted to say I was able to win CIF (section) more than once.”
Johnson, a four-year standout, won a section title in 2012 when the Monarchs defeated Long Beach Poly before losing to Etiwanda last year. Those title games were in Div. I-AA, so the first one in the open division and the open division format in the state tournament is special for Johnson.
“I think the open division is great for California teams, especially since we can’t play in the tournament in New York,” Johnson said. “This gives us a chance to play some really good teams and people can’t say we’re not playing anyone.”
Johnson put Mater Dei on his back to run the Monarchs’ record to 31-0 after they started the game flat. Mater Dei trailed 7-1 to open the game, but took a 13-12 lead with 4:33 remaining in the second quarter on a dunk by sophomore M.J. Cage (7 points, 8 rebounds, 5 blocks). The second quarter turned out to be the difference in the game, as Mater Dei outscored Chino Hills 19-5 after trailing 9-7 after one period.
“If I could do one thing over in this game, it would be the second quarter,” said Chino Hills coach Steve Baik. “It was a hard-fought game, but a couple of shots we typically make didn’t go in.”
Chino Hills (25-5) shot 26 percent (16-of-61) from the field. Sophomore guard Lonzo Ball, who has been the Huskies’ catalyst all season with his long-range shooting and unselfish approach on offense, made only four of 22 field goal attempts, including one-of-10 from 3-point range. Despite the woeful shooting, the Huskies were still in position to win the game at the end. With his team trialing 46-44, Ball shot a 3-pointer from the left corner on the move with 8.5 seconds remaining and was off-target. Chino Hills got possession after a held ball situation with 9.1 seconds remaining and then Johnson iced the game with 4.9 seconds remaining.
“We just couldn’t hit shots, it wasn’t the environment,” said Ball, who finished with nine points, 11 rebounds, four assists and 3 steals. “If I got the ball on that final possession, I was going to let it go. We wanted to go for the win, but it didn’t happen.”
Ball’s younger brother, freshman wing LiAngelo Ball, was the game’s only other double-digit scorer besides Johnson. He finished with 14 points.
Mater Dei TIED with Washington Union, Edison
With its victory, Mater Dei not only locked up the top seed in the SoCal Open Division regional playoffs (pairings will be announced Sunday afternoon), the Monarchs also won their 22nd Southern Section boys basketball title. All of them have been under Gary McKnight, the state’s all-time winningest coach.
Twenty-two puts Mater Dei in a tie for first-place on the all-time state list, according to the Cal-Hi Sports record book. Earlier Saturday evening, Washington Union of Easton also won its 22nd section title. Another CIF Central Section program, Edison of Fresno, also won No. 22 on Saturday.
Some of the section titles for Washington Union and Edison, however, extend back to 1936. For one coach to have 22 sets apart Mater Dei and McKnight.
Chino Hills’ Regional Placement
The chatter along press row at the conclusion of Saturday night’s CIFSS Open Division final was about Westchester of Los Angeles going down in the L.A. City Section Division I final against El Camino Real of Woodland Hills and where Chino Hills will be placed in the SoCal regional playoffs.
Chino Hills does not meet the criteria for the CIF state open division playoffs and wouldn’t even if it would have upset Mater Dei on Saturday night. In order for the Huskies to be considered for the open division, they must request to be considered. As of Saturday night, Chino Hills had not requested to do so.
“My A.D. told me we didn’t meet the criteria,” Baik said. “I have not declared and I am not going to go out of my way to communicate about that. Now, if they come to me and ask about it, then we’ll have to make a decision.”
As the press conference for the CIFSS Open Division title was ending, a CIF official took Baik to the side and explained to him the selection committee cannot make Chino Hills opt up, but rather he would need to request it. As of the time we left the Honda Center, Chino Hills had not formally made that request.
The seeding meeting for the regional playoffs begins at 10 a.m. Sunday morning. Now Baik may go talk to his staff and players and they may collectively decide they want to go for the open division and possibly get another chance at Mater Dei. The Huskies proved they can play with Mater Dei and basically any team in the SoCal Open Division field, but their chances at a state title improve if they remain in the Division I field.
A team similar to Chino Hills in Northern California, Monte Vista of Danville (ranked 10th overall in the state), had a team vote on Saturday morning and voted to remain in Division I and not ask to be moved up to the NorCal Open Division.