State No. 5 Etiwanda exorcises playoff demons at Mater Dei’s Meruelo Athletic Center and downs the state’s No. 2 team on Tuesday night to advance to Saturday night’s CIFSS Open Division championship game versus state No. 3 Bishop Montgomery.
There was no doubt Etiwanda was going to have a fine basketball team this season. The Eagles opened up No. 26 in the preseason Grassroots Hoops FAB 50 national rankings, but they struggled at times during tournament play and the first round of league play.
Damien of La Verne won the tough Baseline League outright, but that club lost in the first round of the rugged CIFSS Open Division playoffs. League member Chino Hills fell to Mater Dei of Santa Ana in the quarterfinals, but Etiwanda was able to defeat the Monarchs in the semifinals, and exorcise some playoff demons against that team in the process, as junior guard Garrett Carter hit the big shot in his team’s 52-49 win.
With Etiwanda (23-7) trailing 49-47, Carter took a pass on the left wing with 18 seconds remaining and drained his third 3-pointer of the game to give the Eagles the lead for good. Mater Dei (26-4) had an opportunity to potentially win the game on the other end, but Etiwanda didn’t celebrate the shot, got back and forced Mater Dei star guard Rex Pflueger into a tough angled field goal attempt that didn’t have a high percentage of going in. Carter grabbed the rebound and was fouled with seven seconds remaining. He made both free throws and moments later Etiwanda’s players and fans celebrated the victory at mid-court.
“Coach told us to get back on the make and we just stayed together and got this win,” said Carter, who finished with a team-high 13 points, including 3-of-4 from 3-point range, and three steals. “I told you guys (Cal-Hi Sports) we’d be here in the end. After the free throws, we had a foul to give and coach told us to take it if we felt uncomfortable.”
Etiwanda did use that foul on Pflueger. He made a shot, but it was after the foul was called on the floor. When it counted, the Notre Dame bound guard came off a screen for the potential game-tying 3-pointer, but it rimmed off long.
It was Mater Dei’s third home loss at its home gym and the first since the 2009 regional playoffs versus Renardo Sidney and L.A. Fairfax. The only other team to beat Mater Dei was Kevin Love’s Lake Oswego (Ore.) team at the 2007 Nike Extravaganza. It was also Mater Dei’s first loss to a California foe since Etiwanda beat the Monarchs 54-51 for the 2013 CIFSS Division I-AA title. Mater Dei came back to rout the Eagles 60-37 in the SoCal Open Division regional final that season and also beat the Eagles last season in a two-overtime, open division regional semifinal thriller, so it’s not surprising the Etiwanda faithful was ecstatic after the final buzzer sounded.
Sophomore guard Miles Oliver of Etiwanda played well in the quarterfinal win over Sierra Canyon of Chatsworth and had more clutch moments versus the Monarchs. He finished with 10 points, and credited the Eagles’ team concept and togetherness for the victory.
“We’re like a family and in the locker room, we said if we stayed together we could get this win,” Oliver said.
Sierra Canyon had beaten Etiwanda, which re-entered the FAB 50 this week at No. 36, in December and so did Mater Dei, but now the Eagles’ young backcourt is playing steady and hitting more open shots than it did before league play began. Etiwanda also received nine points from Pepperdine-bound forward Kameron Edwards. Wyoming-bound center Jordan Naughton had 13 rebounds and a key offensive rebound put back late in the game.
Pflueger finished with 12 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists for Mater Dei, which entered the game No. 7 in the FAB 50 as the second highest ranked California club behind Oakland Bishop O’Dowd (No. 5). Mater Dei also got 18 points on 9-of-11 shooting from junior center M.J. Cage and 17 points, including five 3-pointers, from senior guard La’Vette Parker. Cage only scored four points after intermission.
Mater Dei didn’t get many easy baskets and it didn’t help its own cause by missing seven of 12 shots from the free throw line. Etiwanda made 12 of 14 free throws.
Etiwanda, the No. 6 seed in the CIFSS Open Division playoffs, is playing extremely confident and at a high level right now, but so is championship game opponent Bishop Montgomery of Torrance, the top seed. Saturday evening’s title game at the Honda Center figures to be quite entertaining as the section’s best defensive team (Etiwanda) will battle the one with the most offensively skilled backcourt (Bishop Montgomery).
Regardless of which team wins, both Etiwanda and Bishop Montgomery will compete in the SoCal Open Division regional playoffs and likely will be the top two seeds. Etiwanda owns a win over Mater Dei, and the Monarchs have a win over Fairfax, which could be the L.A. City Section’s top representative provided it wins the City Open Division title on Saturday night. Mater Dei will be seeded higher than Fairfax or Westchester of Los Angeles, provided the Comets defeat the Lions or if they are invited as a runner-up. The fourth and final entrant from the CIFSS figures to be Orange Lutheran, which lost to Mater Dei twice in Trinity League play and was soundly defeated by Bishop Montgomery in the opposite CIFSS Open Division semifinal on Saturday.
The Monarchs’ “Drive for Five,” as in a fifth consecutive CIF state title, can still happen, but the road just got harder because of Garrett’s shot. Because it won’t be a top two seed in the open regional playoffs, Mater Dei will likely have to win a tough road game in order to make the regional final.