A few minutes before Mater Dei High School was to play Fairfax for the Southern California Division I boys' basketball championship, Monarch Coach Gary McKnight took a stroll down press row in the Sports Arena.
McKnight had been watching Fairfax, the state's top-ranked team, warming up, and he saw something familiar. He turned to a group of reporters and announced: "They're tight. They're No. 1, undefeated and they're supposed to win the game.
"I can see it in their eyes. I know the feeling, because I had the same feeling last year with a 59-game winning streak."
McKnight was right. Fairfax fell from the ranks of the unbeaten, losing to Mater Dei, 46-42, in front of 9,633. The Monarchs (30-1) will advance to the state championship game against Ygnacio Valley of Concord Saturday in the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum Arena. Ygnacio Valley defeated Logan, 56-54, in double overtime to win the Northern California regional title.
"This was the best win ever," McKnight said. "We came in here as the underdog and controlled the tempo, playing our game. Plus, we finally won a game by more than one point."
Mater Dei had previously won three straight playoff games by one point.
The Monarchs opened a 14-7 lead in the first quarter and then relied on their All-American center, LeRon Ellis, to provide the offense in the second half.
Ellis scored the Monarchs' first 18 points in the second half, including all 15 points in the third quarter when he made 6 of 7 shots. He had a game-high 22 points and 16 rebounds.
Fairfax's much-publicized Sean Higgins guarded Ellis, but the matchup was a mismatch. Higgins also had a poor night offensively, making 5 of 16 shots and finishing with 14 points, off his 22.8 average.
"I don't think Higgins can guard me," Ellis said. "I think his coach told him not to jump when he got three fouls in the first half, because he usually tries to block shots.
"I thought we had a good chance of winning after the first half because we controlled the tempo and weren't intimidated. I started getting flash backs to our summer league game against them when we lost by four points, so I played harder in the third quarter."
Ellis' sixth straight basket with 1:58 remaining in the third quarter gave Mater Dei a 36-27 lead. Fairfax never got closer than three points in the last quarter, and the Lions' chances were reduced when center Chris Mills fouled out with 5:54 remaining.
"This was a nice team effort," McKnight said. "It was a few years coming, but we finally get the opportunity to go to Oakland."
The Monarchs have lost only seven games under McKnight in five seasons and two of those have come in the Southern California regionals. Crenshaw beat the Monarchs in 1983 semifinals and the 1986 final.
"Four years ago, our booster club president, Bill Mounce, told me he would charter a plane to Oakland if we made the State championship," McKnight said. "The time has finally come."