In its last two games, the boys basketball team at Mater Dei of SantaAna has been on the brink of defeat. A loss wouldn’t just end an otherwise successful season, it would be an end to a historic run to a fourth consecutive CIF state title at the highest level.
For Mater Dei senior forward Stanley Johnson, a loss would be particularly devastating as he yearns to become the first California player to play a role on four state-title winning teams in the highest classification.
Entering the Saturday night contest vs. Westchester of Los Angeles in the CIF SoCal final, nobody would have believed Mater Dei could pull out a win over a talented team like Westchester with its national player of the year candidate taking three shots and making none in the second half, but that’s exactly what happenedMater Dei went on a 12-1 run late in the fourth quarter to beat Westchester 59-54 and will now play state No. 2 Bishop O’Dowd of Oakland next Saturday night in Sacramento in a matchup of the state’s two top-ranked teams for the open division title.
The Mater Dei-Bishop O’Dowd open division state final also is a rematch of the championship game at the Tarkanian Classic in Las Vegas won by Mater Dei 63-59 in overtime on the same day St. John Bosco’s football team defeated De La Salle for the Open Division state title.
“I really don’t care if we play O’Dowd or another team for the state title,” Johnson said. “They are supposed to be the best team we could face, so that’s good, but I don’t care if we played the Lakers or a NJB team, I just want to win.”
Even though Johnson didn’t shoot as much as he normally does for Mater Dei (34-0), he clinched the win for the Monarchs by converting at the free throw line. He made four consecutive in the final 22 seconds to cap the 12-1 Mater Dei run to close the game. For the game, he made 11-of-12 and in the last two games against Etiwanda and Westchester, Johnson was a combined 24-of-29.
“I’ve been practicing my free throws a lot lately,” Johnson said. “I get a calm in my soul when I shoot them in situations like this. I zone in and I don’t hear the crowd. I don’t hear anything.”
Amazingly, Mater Dei’s closing run came on the heels of 13-2 run by Westchester (30-7) to get back in the game at the start of the fourth period. Early on, it looked like Mater Dei was going to run away with it after leading by 18 (35-17) points and 35-21 at halftime. Westchester still trailed by five points (45-40) entering the fourth period but actually took a six-point lead on a 3-pointer by Elijah Stewart with 2:46 to go before Mater Dei turned the tide again.
Stewart finished with a team-high 19 points and tied for the team high in rebounds (8) and steals (3), but Westchester quickly fell behind when the L.A. City Section’s best player wasn’t able to get as many looks as Comets’ fans would have liked in the first half. He made 3-of-8 field goal attempts, but the rest of the team made only 4-of-23 in the first half.
Westchester head coach Ed Azzam, now 6-2 in regional title games, credited Mater Dei’s defense.
“They’re a good defensive team, but in the first half we didn’t do anything different,” Azzam said. “We just didn’t make any shots. They still played good defense (in the second half), but we just hit some of those shots with a hand in our face.”
Mater Dei head coach Gary McKnight, now 15-7 in regional title games, credited associate head coach Jason Quinn and assistant Clay McKnight, his son, with stopping the Westchester wave in the fourth period.
“Clay said we should run motion and Quinn said we should double team the ball,” McKnight said. “Those guys are so ahead of the curve. Quinn does a great job with our defense.”
Junior guard La’Vette Parker hit three 3-pointers en route to 15 points for the Monarchs while sophomore M.J. Cage had 13 points and four bocks. Westchester’s other double digit scorer besides Stewart was senior Nick Hamilton with 10 points.
For McKnight, Saturday night’s win was also noteworthy in that it was his first against a L.A. City Section opponent in a regional final. Coming in, Mater Dei was 0-6 in regional finals against L.A. City Section schools, including a 71-68 loss to Azzam and Westchester in the 2010 Division I title game. The other five losses occurred against L.A. Crenshaw.
Saturday’s win also was another stepping stone for McKnight on his path to becoming one of the nation’s most accomplished boys basketball coaches ever.
For this Mater Dei team, however, it was just finding another way to win a game in hopes of becoming the storied program’s first ever to win a state title with an unblemished record.