On a stage that had been so kind to them in two previous games, with wins in the City 4-A semifinal and championship game, the Fairfax High School basketball team played out the worst of all possible scenarios Saturday night.
The Lions got caught in a low-scoring game. Against a well-disciplined team. With their vaunted front line cold. And their leading scorer on the bench with five fouls. And they lost, 46-42, to Santa Ana Mater Dei.
Welcome to Fairfax's nightmare.
The No. 1 boys' team in California (and No. 2 team in the country) was bounced out of the State playoffs by Mater Dei and its center, LeRon Ellis, who scored 18 of his game-high 22 points in the second half to key the win in the Southern California Regional Division I final at the Sports Arena. The Monarchs are No. 2 (and No. 9), but call this an upset anyway.
Because of it, Mater Dei (30-1) goes to Oakland next Saturday to play for the State championship. Fairfax (26-1) goes away knowing it lost to a team with less talent but more discipline.
The front-line totals for the Lions: Chris Mills, 7 of 18 shots and 16 points before fouling out with 4:34 left in the game; Sean Higgins, 5 of 16 shots and 14 points; J.D. Green, 3 of 12 shots and 6 points.
The team total: 16 of 54 field goal attempts, or 29.6%.
Mater Dei's opponent at the Oakland Coliseum Arena will be Ygnacio Valley of Concord, a 56-54 double-overtime winner over Logan of Union City in the Northern California final Saturday night.
The Monarchs' coach, Gary McKnight, took the first steps on his long-awaited journey to the State championship game on the shoulders of some of his players. And to hear the hefty McKnight tell it, those five seconds may have been the toughest workout of the season for some.
"I'm glad those weren't any of the starters," he said. "They could have got a hernia."
But the Monarchs gave him the victory ride in the same manner that they gave him the win.
"This was a nice team effort," McKnight said. "It was a few years coming, but we finally got the opportunity to play in Oakland."
Fairfax fell behind by 11 points, 23-12, with 2:08 to play in the first half, due mainly to a 9-0 Mater Dei run during 4:40 of the second quarter. But with Higgins getting the final four points, the Lions came back to trail by five at halftime, 23-18.
All things considered, it could have been worse. Mater Dei hit just 3 of 14 field goal attempts in the second quarter, and Ellis, its leading scorer, had 4 points on 2-of-9 shooting through the first half. The Monarchs' Kevin Rembert led all first-half scorers with 10.
Fairfax was a horrendous 6 of 24 (25%) from the field in the first half. Keeping it consistent with the rest of the season, the front line led the way--Green was 1 of 6, Higgins 2 of 6 and Mills 3 of 10.
Higgins, who made just 8 of 22 field goal attempts in the City 4-A final (Fairfax's last appearance at the Sports Arena), missed his first four shots of the third quarter.
Meanwhile, Ellis, who ended the night with 16 rebounds, opened the second half with six straight field goals. That was the key as Mater Dei held off a Fairfax rally to lead, 38-31, with eight minutes left in the game--and the Lions never caught up.