Is Mater Dei High School's basketball team unbeatable? The question was posed to Drew Sorenson, St. Francis coach, shortly after the Knights became the 55th consecutive team to lose to the Monarchs.
Sorenson had watched his team play about as well as it could, only to come up short, 72-61, Thursday night in the opening round of the CIF Southern Section 5-A division playoffs at Valencia High.
"Until somebody does it," Sorenson said. "I can't really say. We came in here with a 13-11 record and they were 54-0. I thought we stopped them from doing some of the things they like to do, but they have so many different ways they can beat you."
St. Francis was intent on stopping the Monarchs' inside game. The Knights used a tight, 2-3 zone in which all five defenders were stacked inside the key. The strategy was to draw a curtain around Mater Dei's 6-foot 10-inch LeRon Ellis and 6-9 forward Stuart Thomas.
So what happened? The Monarchs (26-0) continually had open 15-foot shots, and Thomas and Ellis still got enough inside to combine for 39 points.
Still, St. Francis was impressive. The Knights had a 12-6 lead in the first quarter and stayed within range of Mater Dei until Monarch guard Tom Peabody made a free throw, missed his second shot and Thomas rebounded and scored for a 56-42 Mater Dei lead with 7:03 left to play.
The Knights started what was essentially four guards and 6-5 center Bryan Duffy.
Gary McKnight, Mater Dei coach, was in no mood to talk about another perfect season.
"Our intensity was very poor defensively," McKnight said. "We didn't execute offensively and that comes directly from our lackluster practices all week. If we don't pick it up, this could be a short playoff for us."
McKnight was fighting the flu, but the fourth-year coach still showed a sense of humor. Asked if there was anything he liked about his team's play, McKnight said, "Yeah, I thought we hustled on and off the court pretty well."
He also could have mentioned the Monarchs' shooting. Mater Dei made 32 of 52 (62%) field-goal attempts. The Monarchs also blocked eight shots, five by Ellis.
"We can score just as easily from the outside as we can inside," McKnight said. "We've seen a lot of zones this year, and John Mounce and Jim Dwyer have become better shooters."
Mounce was the Monarchs' most effective outside shooter, making 6 of 12 from the 15-18 foot range. But it's no secret that Mater Dei will rely heavily on the play of Thomas and Ellis if it hopes to reach the title game March 8 in the Sports Arena.
The Monarchs are only two victories away from reaching the section's large-school championship game for the fourth straight year. The Monarchs will meet the winner of tonight's Millikan-St. Anthony game in the quarterfinals Friday, Feb. 28, at a site to be determined on Saturday.