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ERIC SONDHEIMER / ON HIGH SCHOOLS

You can't spell Mater Dei without T-E-A-M

Perhaps the most startling part of the boys' basketball team's 23-0 start is the unselfishness of the players.

February 06, 2009|ERIC SONDHEIMER | ON HIGH SCHOOLS

Let's count the many qualities to admire about Santa Ana Mater Dei's 23-0 boys' basketball team:

* Four of the five starters are legitimate candidates to make the McDonald's All-American Game, considering David and Travis Wear have signed with North Carolina, Tyler Lamb has committed to UCLA and Gary Franklin Jr. is committed to USC.

* The second stringers have been called "the second-best team in Orange County," and it's not too far of a stretch, with 6-foot-6 volleyball standout Connor Hughes and junior guards Michael Pierce and Tom Stangl.

* The 6-10 Wear twins have made a big jump in ability by becoming stronger and more physical. "Those who were critics when they were younger didn't realize their bodies would mature and grow into big men," Coach Gary McKnight said.

* Virtually every member of the starting five has improved, whether it's the Wears finishing shots more emphatically, Franklin reducing his turnovers or Lamb proving he can play defense.

* The season-ending knee injury to Stanford-bound Andy Brown last week has forced the team to deal with adversity, reducing its margin for error while forcing everyone to up their play a notch.

Perhaps the most profound and startling quality on display is unselfishness. If any of the five starters had an open shot to win a game, each would have the confidence to take the shot but none would hesitate to pass the ball to a teammate.

That is a rarity in high school basketball, where convincing top players to not care about their scoring average or statistics just doesn't happen very often, but it's the case with Mater Dei.

"I have guys scoring five or six points and they don't frown after games," McKnight said.

Lamb, in particular, has needed to change. He was known primarily for his shooting skills when he played at Ontario Colony and averaged 20 points a game. During the summer, he had the green light to shoot from anywhere on the club circuit.

He has gone through a makeover at Mater Dei that will certainly please his future coach at UCLA, Ben Howland, because he's playing tough defense, sharing the ball, scoring on drives and pull-up jumpers.

"He's really bought into playing as a team," McKnight said. "He has no emotion if he's a high scorer or a lower scorer."

Lamb's arrival provided the missing piece to the puzzle for Mater Dei. He has filled in so many potential gaps with his versatility that it has enabled the Monarchs to reach a different level.

"He's really made a difference with our starting lineup," McKnight said. "I think he's really become a good defensive player."

Lamb and his teammates understand what a rare opportunity they have to combine their immense talents for the goal of achieving a perfect season.

"I'm savoring every moment because this doesn't come every day," Lamb said.

Brown's injury, however, has created some uncertainty and left the Monarchs vulnerable when they play a top team, such as Newark (N.J.) St. Benedict's on Saturday in the Nike Extravaganza at Mater Dei. St. Benedict's (19-1) is ranked No. 2 in the nation by USA Today but lost to Elizabeth (N.J.) St. Patrick, 88-62, on Wednesday. Mater Dei is No. 1.

Brown might have been Mater Dei's most versatile player, because he could shoot from long range and use his 6-8 size to create mismatches. Now that he's unavailable, Mater Dei remains a strong team but the aura of invincibility is gone.

An unbeaten season remains possible, if not probable, though there are tests looming besides St. Benedict's.

Among the challenges ahead are possible games against battle-tested Compton Dominguez, Etiwanda or Riverside King in the Southern Section Division I-AA playoffs, and a game against City Section power Westchester in the Southern California Regionals.

Also, the Monarchs will have to win games at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion and Sacramento's Arco Arena, two venues where they haven't shot well in the past.

So get a checklist and start to cross out the Mater Dei accomplishments as they are completed, but none will be more impressive than seeing a group of high school standouts put their egos on hold to embrace the concept of unselfishness and team first.

--

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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