State No. 4 Mater Dei of Santa Ana wins its first CIF Southern Section Open Division title since the Stanley Johnson era with a thrilling 55-53 victory over state No. 2 Sierra Canyon. With the win, Mater Dei will receive the top seed in the SoCal Open regional bracket set to be released Sunday afternoon. There are plenty of possibilities, and no overwhelming favorite to represent SoCal in the CIF Open Division state title game.
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With 27.7 seconds remaining, Mater Dei’s Spencer Freedman was fouled with his Mater Dei of Santa Ana team leading 54-53. The Harvard commit and one of the best shooters, if not the best, in the state, was the guy the Monarchs wanted at the line.
He missed both and kept Sierra Canyon’s hope alive of capturing its first CIF Southern Section crown in the section’s highest division. The Chatsworth school had been playing with plenty of confidence after receiving a No. 5 seed in the eight-team bracket. The Trailblazers needed a miraculous finish to defeat then state No. 1 Bishop Montgomery of Torrance in the CIFSS Open Division semifinals and had plenty of opportunities to win this game.
After Freedman’s missed free throws, Sierra Canyon junior guard Scottie Pippen Jr. got a clean lay-up look at the rim, but it slowly rimmed off and K.J. Martin’s follow up just didn’t go down either. After a mad scrum for the ball, Mater Dei’s Aidan Prukop shot his first free throws of the game with 8.7 seconds remaining and gave Sierra Canyon another opportunity by making one of two at the line.
Down two points, Sierra Canyon got the ball to Duane Washington Jr., a Ohio State bound senior whose made plenty of big shots this season. He got a runner on the left-hand side, but for a right-hander it was a difficult angle and it was off. A couple of follow-ups were not clean looks as hands were flying everywhere. When the buzzer sounded, the Sierra Canyon players stood by the basket in frozen silence as the Mater Dei players mobbed each other at midcourt as the Monarchs held on for a 55-33 win before just over 3,000 people at The Pyramid in Long Beach.
With the win, Mater Dei (23-6) captured its 23rd CIF Southern Section title in the 36 years Gary McKnight has been a head coach. This is the program’s first one since 2013-14, when Mr. Basketball Stanley Johnson (Arizona/NBA) led Mater Dei to a 35-0 season and final No. 2 FAB 50 National Ranking in a season in which at least one outlet named the Monarchs mythical national champions. Mater Dei began this season ranked No. 1 in the state, but lost heavily-recruited senior center Bol Bol to transfer before the results started rolling in. The Monarchs will likely be up to No. 2 in the state rankings next week as the No. 1 seed in the upcoming SoCal Open Division regional playoffs.
For this group of Mater Dei seniors, they didn’t want to leave the program without winning a section title. And they would love to add a CIF state crown in three weeks.
“Winning this means so much to me,” said Freedman, who stepped up and scored six points on the two Mater Dei possessions following the foul disqualification of Penn-bound Michael Wang with 5:41 remaining and the Monarchs holding a five-point lead. “Winning with this group of guys is so special. We have such a close bond and I am so happy for us as a team. Getting to this point last year, and ending up on the other end of it, and now overcoming that and accomplishing what we did tonight was truly incredible. Myself, along with the other seniors, have wanted this the entire year, and winning it is justification of all the hard work we have put in over many years.”
Wang still led three Monarchs in double figures with 14 points despite fouling out with over half of the fourth quarter remaining. Freedman had 13 points and offset his poor night at the charity stripe (1-of-4) by nailing 2-of-5 on 3-pointers. The other double-digit scorer for Mater Dei was Southern Utah-bound Harrison Butler with 12 points and five rebounds.
For tough-luck Sierra Canyon (23-4), Martin had another big playoff game with game-highs of 18 points and 11 rebounds. The other double-digit scorer was junior Cassius Stanley with 12 points.
While both teams shot poorly from the free throw line (7-of-14 for Mater Dei, 9-of-17 for Sierra Canyon), a big factor in the game outcome was the 3-point shooting. Mater Dei made 8-of-17, while Sierra Canyon did not make any in eight attempts.
Mater Dei will get the No. 1 seed, but there is still many questions to be answered with the rest of the CIF SoCal regional bracket. Will Central Section D2 champion San Joaquin Memorial of Fresno be chosen for the North or South Bracket? How will the school expulsion of Arizona St.-bound Taeshon Cherry affect where San Diego Section Open Division runner-up Foothills Christian is placed? And will the CIF take a fifth team in the SoCal Open Division regional?
With Mater Dei winning the section open crown and CIF Southern Section programs likely to nab the top four seeds in the SoCal Open regional, it’s a tricky proposition to potentially place CIFSS Open Division consolation champion St. John Bosco of Bellflower in the open bracket. It surely won’t be the eighth seed, as the CIF won’t have two teams from the same league meeting in a regional opener. The Braves, which came into this week ranked No. 14 in the state but will likely move up next week following their second win of the season over Crespi of Encino (which came into the consolation final ranked No. 7), would have to open with another CIF Southern Section team on the road in its opener.
As for Sierra Canyon, it will be the No. 2 seed, mainly because of its semifinal win over Bishop Montgomery. The Knights had a strong case for the No. 2 seed had Mater Dei lost and is a logical No. 3 seed.
CIF San Diego Section Open Division champ Mission Bay of San Diego will be seeded behind the CIF L.A. City Section champion and likely the runner-up as well. If Foothills Christian, which owned a win over both L.A. City Section finalists (Fairfax and Westchester) with Cherry in the lineup, ends up outside the open division, it increases the chances of St. John Bosco being placed in the SoCal open bracket.
Regardless of how the SoCal Open bracket shakes out, it seems like a wide-open affair with as many as five or six team with a realistic shot to win the regional crown.