It’s going to be the CIF Southern Section’s best vs. the L.A. City Section’s best when Mater Dei of Santa Ana takes on Fairfax of Los Angeles in the SoCal Open Division Regional Final. After taking in both team’s regional semifinal wins and seeing both teams multiple times throughout the season, here’s what to expect on Saturday night at the Long Beach Pyramid.
Outside the looming presence of state No. 1 Bishop O’Dowd of Oakland, the best boys basketball teams in the state are concentrated in the SoCal Open and Division I regional playoffs. With that in mind, it’s shouldn’t be a surprise that both SoCal regional finals are rematches of sorts. In Division I, it’s a rematch of last season’s SoCal D1 regional final between Chino Hills and Centennial of Corona. Centennial won the game before losing in the CIF state title. This season, red-hot Centennial is looking to defeat Chino Hills for the second consecutive year and erase the memory of last season’s loss to Monte Vista of Danville in the CIF Division I state final.
In the SoCal Open regional, L.A. City Section Open Division champion Fairfax (32-2) will look for revenge against CIF Southern Section Open Division semifinalist Mater Dei of Santa Ana (28-4). Mater Dei handed Fairfax its first of two losses this season with a 47-34 win at its own Nike Extravaganza in early February. Fairfax was awarded the No. 2 seed in the regional, while as a semifinalist, Mater Dei was No. 4. In this case, however, it won’t make much difference because the game will be played in a big-arena setting — namely The Pyramid in Long Beach.
What To Look For From Fairfax
With the game in a big arena, the first thing Fairfax is going to have to do better is shoot the ball from the perimeter than it did on Mater Dei’s home court. Mater Dei did a good job of cutting off Fairfax’s driving lanes, as the Lions only scored a grand total of nine points in the second half. That simply won’t get it done on Saturday. Making matters worse, starting guard Donald Gipson hurt his knee in the 58-50 regional semifinal victory over No. 3 seed Etiwanda on Tuesday. Scheduled to have an MRI on Thursday, the chances of Gipson playing are not good on Saturday, nor in the CIF state final should Fairfax win. Gipson is Fairfax’s best shooter so his absence is a big blow.
One candidate to step up is 6-foot-2 senior Isaiah Ajiboye. He was excellent in the win over Etiwanda — on both ends of the floor. He finished with 11 points, but it was the timing of them and his contributions that stood out. When Etiwanda made a push Ajiboye was there to answer. “Isaiah Ajiboye has really played well the last three or four games,” said veteran Fairfax coach Harvey Kitani, who won CIF Division I state titles in 2004 and 2007. “He played Kam Edwards tough and he only missed one shot in the City Championship game versus Westchester. I’m really proud of him from where he’s come.”
Mater Dei has an advantage with M.J. Cage in the middle. His inside play was one of the major key’s in Mater Dei ending CIFSS Open Division champion and No. 1 seed Bishop Montgomery’s season with a 65-59 regional semifinal win. Cage controlled the paint with his shot blocking and shot altering, and finished with 17 points, 15 rebonds and five blocked shots. Cage has been consistent in Mater Dei’s big games, so it will be up to Fairfax junior center Babacar Thiombane to stay balanced, finish his easy looks and stay out of major foul trouble. Grid-Hooper Foster Dixson provides Fairfax with toughness inside off the bench, so if he can battle Cage on the boards and keep him from getting easy put backs or looks over the top, Fairfax’s chances to win improve significantly.
What To Look For From Mater Dei
Bishop Montgomery won the coveted CIFSS Open Division crown against a stacked field of state ranked teams. It was going to have to get by some of those teams a second time in order to win the SoCal Open Division regional and that wasn’t going to be easy. It happened to CIFSS Div. I-AA champ Etiwanda in 2013 — it’s just tough to get by the same group of teams a second time in the same season. That’s going to be the challenge for Mater Dei in its quest for a fifth consecutive CIF state title in the highest classification — beat a really good team for the second time this season.
Fairfax has an advantage with quickness in the half court and explosiveness in the open court with Lorne Currie Jr. and Lindsey Drew. That’s not going to change. But with Rex Pflueger, Mater Dei has a perimeter defender with a big more size and length than Etiwanda had to slow one of them down. Mater Dei kept Fairfax at bay by closing gaps and cutting off the baseline in the first meeting, but if Fairfax shoots better from the field, will Mater Dei be able to do that again? Fairfax will make some adjustments and play with a sense of urgency, especially since Gipson won’t be in the lineup.
Senior guard La’Vette Parker scored a game-high 22 points in the first game versus Fairfax (11 points more than anyone else) and he was the leading scorer in the regional semifinal with over Bishop Montgomery with 21 points (6-12 FG, 7-8 FT). He’s hit a countless number of big perimeter shots in the last two years and will likely hit one or two in Saturday’s showdown. Drew and Currie Jr. are going to have to be keen with their ball recognition because if that lag in that area, Mater Dei will hurt them with its inside-outside game. Mater Dei does a good job of working the ball inside to Cage and kicking it back out for an open look. If Fairfax can figure its defensive rotations out, it will increase it chances to win this game.
“Our key to winning is to share the ball and not be selfish,” Cage said. “Last year with Stanley Johnson, we gave him the ball and wanted him to take it. This year we have to be more of a team.”
K.J. Smith, a senior transfer from Oaks Christian of Westlake Village, had a career game versus Bishop Montgomery with 14 points, six rebounds and four assists. If he has a game close to those numbers on Saturday, Mater Dei will be in good shape. On the other end, however, Smith is going to have to work to slow down his assignment opposite Pflueger. Fairfax is more explosive than Bishop Montgomery in the open court, but at times can get sloppy with the ball. If Mater Dei has in the range of seven turnovers (as it did agains the Knights) and runs its offense patiently, it will decrease the chances of an extensive Fairfax run and that’s what Mater Dei head coach Gary McKnight wants to prevent Fairfax from doing.
More aspects of the game will have to go Fairfax’s way, compared to how many things have to go right for Mater Dei, if the Lions are to win. Mater Dei’s execution and defense hasn’t faltered all season, wheres Fairfax’s explosive runs and outside shooting have been a bit less consistent.
Too bad about Gipson. The south needs it’s best representative to have a shot against that O’Dowd team. If MD wins, we might not know for sure if they would have won with Gipson on the court.
Yes, it is too bad about Gipson Phil60. Gipson is a good player, Fax’s best shooter and was really coming along as a prospect.
Great analysis, Ronnie. I agreed with Phil60 that the loss of Donald Gipson is disheartening. I hope that this promising, athletic talent can come back stronger and better than ever. I think that the key to this game is which team is better able to impose its will defensively on the other. Fairfax has to have great ball movement and motion, without turnovers, if it is going to win.
The outside shooting and ball movement wasn’t there for Fairfax, unfortunately. Without Gipson, they needed a monster game from Lorne Currie and it wasn’t there.