There were several times Friday night when it appeared as if Mater Dei High School was on the brink of making its Southern Section 5-A quarterfinal game against St. Anthony a rout.
Playing at Long Beach City College, the Monarchs had a nine-point lead in the first quarter, a 15-point lead in the second and a 16-point lead in the third.
The Monarchs (27-0) eventually came away with a 72-63 victory that places them in the 5-A semifinals against St. Bernard's on Wednesday.
The game swayed from spectacular in the first half to tedious in the fourth quarter when the teams committed 24 fouls.
In that first half, the Monarchs were in power. That's power as in power-game, a Mater Dei offense that places 6-foot 9-inch Stuart Thomas and 6-10 LeRon Ellis low. They took turns screening the Saints 6-8, 320-pound center Jaime Cardriche.
"We wanted to get Jaime running on the baseline," Mater Dei Coach Gary McKnight said. "I thought we were pretty successful inside in the first half."
With St. Anthony in a tight 2-3 zone, the Monarchs were free to move the ball around the perimeter, waiting for an open chance inside. On several occasions, the Monarchs moved the ball from the wing to Tom Peabody at the point. Peabody would then make a touch pass inside to one of his postmen for an easy layup.
Though the power-game was effective--Thomas and Ellis combined for 23 points in the first half--with Cardriche in the middle, it was not always easy.
"I ran into him a couple of times in the key and he didn't move," Thomas said. "He just stood there. And I was moving pretty fast."
Thomas ended the game with 18 points. Ellis with 15.
Mater Dei built a 41-26 lead with 50 seconds left and appeared to be in control. It was at that point however, that Saint guard Scott Lewis made his only two field goals the game. At the half, the Monarchs led 41-30.
With 1:37 left in the third quarter Mater Dei had a 52-36 lead and appeared ready--once again--ready to blow things open. But Ellis got his fourth foul and was removed from the game. With one of Mater Dei's big men gone, St. Anthony point guard Darrick Martin started penetrate aggressively into the key.
Martin, a sophomore with an abundance of of talent, sparked a 7-0 spurt by the Saints in the last minute of the quarter. After three quarters Mater Dei led, 52-42.
In the fourth quarter there were 24 fouls and 39 free throws. It took 17 minutes to play the last three minutes. Four Saints fouled out. St. Anthony's Derek Walker didn't foul out, he just committed four fouls in four minutes.
After the ordeal, a perspiring McKnight didn't want to talk about the upcoming semifinals.
"It's the fourth straight year we're in the semifinals, I'm happy about that. But right now I don't want to think about it."
It had been a long night.