Forty-five minutes before tipoff Friday night, Santa Ana Mater Dei boys’ basketball coach Gary McKnight sat patiently at his desk, his cluttered office looking more like an airy trophy case than a workplace.
The Monarchs’ position in the Southern Section basketball landscape is well-known, the collection of Southern Section and state championship trophies in McKnight’s office serving as blatant proof. But this has been a bit of a strange season for the program — falling to Division 1 in the Southern Section playoffs with a young team.
McKnight isn’t just coaching for this season, he said in January. He’s coaching with an eye to two years from now. Maybe three. But down 17 at the half in Friday’s semifinal against Manhattan Beach Mira Costa, McKnight threw the game plan out the window and let his young bucks roam free, the Monarchs looking like veterans in a raucous 60-54 comeback win.
Mater Dei advances to the Division 1 finals Feb. 25 against Etiwanda, which beat Anaheim Canyon 67-57. The loss ended a dream season for Mira Costa, which looked poised to run the Monarchs out of their own gym in the first half.
Mater Dei, which relies on three-pointers, made only one in the first half. And on the other end, Mira Costa’s offense simply overwhelmed in a whirlwind of ball and player movement, touch-passing and quick-hitting in transition for easy buckets.
Late in the first quarter, senior guard Will Householter waved off any other action to attack off a screen-and-roll, extended for an and-one-finish after a Mustangs fan in the stands yelled “he can’t guard you,” and Mira Costa went into halftime a bundle of smiles and high-fives.
The message in Mater Dei’s locker room was simple.
“Cause chaos,” senior Zack Davidson said.
Chaos: a third-quarter slam dunk by junior Scotty Belnap over a Mira Costa defender that sent the student section into a frenzy.
Chaos: a full-court, lethal trap that sent Mira Costa passes flying into the hands of Monarchs defenders.
Chaos: slithery drives by lanky 6-foot-8 freshman Brannon Martinsen, who finished with a team-high 17 points.
“They played desperate,” McKnight said.
At the start of the fourth quarter, a pretty bounce pass by Davidson to a cutting Owen Verna for an and-one layup cut Mira Costa’s lead to five. With a few minutes left, freshman Luke Barnett buried a huge three to finally give Mater Dei a lead.
“I’m not impressed,” Davidson said of the freshmen stepping up, “because I see that every day in practice.”
After exchanging threes, the Monarchs forced a couple of errant passes from Householter, and knocked down free throws to seal the comeback.
Davidson had 15 points for Mater Dei. Senior Nick Lundy led Mira Costa with 26 points.