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Prior to the Friday night CIF Southern Section Open Division title game tip-off in Chatsworth between Cal-Hi Sports’ top-ranked and No. 1 seed Sierra Canyon and third-ranked and No. 2 seed Centennial, the horde of electronic and digital media was giving all their attention to the host Trailblazers.
Their focus was also in part because NBA superstar LeBron James, along with his entourage, was there to see Sierra Canyon and his son, Trailblazers’ sophomore Bronny James, in action for the first time this season. He was just cleared from a meniscus knee surgery from several months ago.
Whether all the fanfare had an effect on the outcome of the game we’ll never know, but in the end, the film crews and cameras were focused on the young Huskies after Centennial (21-2) pulled off the upset with an 80-72 victory.
The title-game triumph not only gives the boys from the Inland Empire their first-ever CIF Southern Section Open Division championship, and top CIFSS division title period, but it ended more than one formidable Sierra Canyon streak.
Sierra Canyon (15-1) came into the game with a 21-game playoff winning streak, a 20-0 record in its last 20 games against seven CIFSS Open teams, an 81-7 overall record in its last 88 games in which the team only lost two games to teams from California with both losses to Rancho Christian of Temecula, and as the first team to appear in four consecutive CIFSS open championship games. Although there were no state championships last year and there will be no state championships this year, the Trailblazers had won the previous three CIF SoCal Open Division state titles.
The bottom line is that on this night BallIsLife FAB 50 No. 46 ranked Centennial was the better team than No. 10 Sierra Canyon. The Huskies shot better, and played ultra-tough defense that included 12 blocked shots as a team.
“We hadn’t had a 32-minute game like that all year, so it was nice to see the guys put it all together and play a complete game,” said Centennial head coach Josh Giles, who now has won two CIF Southern Section championships at Centennial after winning the 2007 Division 2-AA title.
Putting it all together meant playing at its best for all four quarters and Centennial more than fulfilled that task against Sierra Canyon.
“This team works harder than any team I’ve ever had,” continued Giles. “We told the guys last night ‘preparation is opportunity’ so let’s make sure we take advantage of it.”
The visiting Huskies sure took advantage of those opportunities and although they didn’t lead wire-to-wire they never let Sierra Canyon get any momentum. A lot of that had to do with the fact that the Centennial guards shot the lights out and the front line players controlled the paint.
Sophomore guard Kylan Boswell had six three-pointers and finished with 24 points, five rebounds and two assists. Junior guard Donavan Dent added 19 points (three 3-pointers) and three assists.
Between the two, they couldn’t stop Mr. Basketball State Player of the Year candidate Amari Bailey as the 6-foot-5 UCLA-committed smooth left-hander made some real nifty moves and was unstoppable once he went to the rack. Bailey had 34 points with three 3-pointers, but the other starting guard, senior sharpshooter Ryan Grande, was held scoreless.
Up front, Giles got great performances from the sophomore duo of 6-foot-6 forward Aaron McBride and 6-foot-10 power forward Devin Williams. McBride finished with a double-double 13 points and 10 rebounds with four blocked shots. Williams added eight points, eight rebounds and six blocks.
“With all the hard work we’ve put in in the last 16 months, it feels so good to come in here with all the hype and play the way we did,” said McBride “We’ve gone a long way before but we’ve never been able to put it all together until tonight.”
Besides Bailey, two other players played well for Sierra Canyon. Shy Odom, a 6-foot-6 junior wing, played hard all game and gave his best against the Centennial frontcourt but he didn’t get enough help. Odom finished with a double-double 16 points (two 3-pointers) and 11 rebounds with two blocks. Ramel Lloyd Jr., a 6-foot-6 junior guard, added 12 points and six rebounds.
As for Bronny, he came in with 2:12 left in the first quarter when it was apparent Grande could not get any separation for good looks at the basket. At that point, Sierra Canyon trailed 20-17 and James made an immediate impact with a steal and a basket. However, he didn’t score again until midway through the fourth quarter when Sierra Canyon was down by eight for the fourth time at 70-62. On successive possessions, James had a basket and a three-pointer that bounced three times on the rim before settling home to cut it to a 70-67 deficit.
Unfortunately for the home crowd, but to the delight of the raucous visiting fans, Boswell answered right back with a college-length three-pointer to make it 73-67.
A free-throw by Odom and a basket by Bailey cut it to 73-70 with 2:17 left, but you guessed it, Boswell hammered home a near NBA-length three pointer for a 76-70 lead.
Bailey had the final Sierra Canyon basket but at that point Giles went inside to Williams. He had an and-one but missed the free-throw and it was 78-72 Centennial with 1:19 remaining.
Sierra Canyon had more than one look at a three-pointer but couldn’t connect, and both teams had missed opportunities before Williams scored the final points of the game. At that point, all Sierra Canyon could do was let the clock run out.
Although the eight-point margin of victory was the fifth time Centennial led by eight, the game was fairly close throughout, mostly due to the efforts of Bailey.
Centennial led 22-21 after one quarter but Sierra Canyon took its first lead at 23-22 on a basket by Bailey to open the second quarter. From there, the second quarter was back and forth with six lead changes and four ties after the teams went into the locker room tied 39-39 at halftime.
In the third period, Centennial started to get some separation and led 53-45 midway through that quarter, but Sierra Canyon continued to fight back and trailed 63-58 heading to the fourth quarter.
The buzz on press row was inserting Bronny into the mix at this stage after he hadn’t played the first 15 games. That might have thrown Sierra Canyon off its rhythm, but with Grande not looking like he could be a factor and generate some offense, it seemed Sierra Canyon head coach Andre Chevalier didn’t really have another option.
A twist to this whole crazy season with high school and club basketball overlapping is Centennial previously announced it would not advance to the CIF Southern Regional playoffs win or lose in order to play as a team at an event in Arizona where 500 college coaches will be in attendance.
When asked if beating Sierra Canyon but not moving on to the SoCals kind of stings, Giles had this to say.
“For us, yes and no,” Giles replied. “We talked about it with the parents, and if there’s a state championship on the back end of this, we’re not even having this discussion.
“But for these guys to go 16 months without playing in front of college coaches, to me that kind of took precedence over that because they need to get out and get seen,” Giles continued. “We have some guys that need to play at the next level and that’s going to help.”
As for the CIF Southern Regional Open Division, we will know who the seeds are after the Sunday seeding meeting. Right now it’s looking like Torrey Pines of San Diego is in the driver’s seat for the No. 1 seed since it would be 29-0 including a win over Centennial if it were to win the CIF San Diego Section Open Division title game on Saturday night against Cathedral Catholic. Centennial’s players and coaches obviously are now going to root for Sierra Canyon — or any other team — to knock off Torrey Pines. That would then clear the way for the Huskies to add a State Team of the Year selection to their CIFSS Open crown.
Harold Abend is the associate editor of CalHiSports.com and the vice president of the California Prep Sportswriters Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter: @HaroldAbend