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ERIC SONDHEIMER ON HIGH SCHOOLS

Riverside King's title heralds a new hoops Empire

The team's resounding victory over previously unbeaten Mater Dei in Southern Section Division I-AA boys' basketball final indicates a shift in the regional balance of power, toward the Inland Empire.

March 09, 2009|ERIC SONDHEIMER | ON HIGH SCHOOLS

It's time to fill up the gas tank, get on the 210 freeway and head to the Inland Empire because that's where the most innovative coaches and the most underrated high school basketball players are hanging out in 2009.

As the state playoffs get underway tonight and the brutally tough 16-team Division I bracket in Southern California begins to sink in, it's clear that basketball supremacy has shifted.

That's the impact of Riverside King's 71-56 victory over previously unbeaten Santa Ana Mater Dei on Saturday night at the Honda Center to win the Southern Section Division I-AA championship and earn the No. 1 seeding for this week's Division I Southern California Regional.

"We didn't do anything different against Mater Dei than we've done against any other team," King Coach Tim Sweeney said.

That means the so-called experts who had Mater Dei (30-1) ranked No. 1 in the nation and King (27-2) nowhere to be found haven't been paying much attention to what's been happening in Riverside, Corona, Moreno Valley, Etiwanda and Rialto.

There are top players rising up. There are McDonald's All-American guard Michael Snaer of Moreno Valley Rancho Verde and his junior teammate, guard Kyle Fuller. There's 6-foot-9 Perris Blackwell of Etiwanda.

There's Rialto Eisenhower guard Andrew Bock, who scored 27 of his 29 points in the second half Saturday as the Eagles beat Los Angeles Loyola in the Division II-A final. And there's 6-7 Kawhi Leonard of King, who pulled down a staggering 20 rebounds against Mater Dei.

There are elite coaches, such as Sweeney, Dave Kleckner at Etiwanda, Steve Johnson at Eisenhower and Josh Giles at Corona Centennial.

"The Inland Empire has some great basketball players and great coaches," Sweeney said. "Slowly, each year, we're beginning to show everybody we're a force to be reckoned with."

And it's not just the boys taking charge in basketball. Cajon defeated Long Beach Poly to win the Division I-AA girls' title. And Ontario Colony took the Division I-A girls' championship.

The Division I boys' regional is so challenging that Mater Dei Coach Gary McKnight was hardly optimistic after his team's defeat, saying, "Maybe we can refocus and regroup, but it's not going to be easy."

Teams are set to play tonight, Tuesday and Thursday, then the survivors move on to Pauley Pavilion on Saturday, trying to earn a spot in the championship game March 21 at Arco Arena in Sacramento. Road teams are facing the prospect of getting home at midnight or later in a hectic week.

Just ask Sweeney about the experience. His team last season lost to Compton Dominguez in the Division I regional final after winning on the road at City Section champion Woodland Hills Taft.

"Last year, having to play two games on the road and get home at 2 in the morning, the kids were spent and wasted," he said. "This may not be the best team wins. This may be the team that is the fittest and gets through the attrition of the week."

King opens at home tonight against Reseda Cleveland. Westchester, seeded No. 2, plays host to Fresno Central. No. 3 Mater Dei is at home against Chino Hills. And No. 4 Taft has a home game against Ventura.

Tuesday's quarterfinals could produce games so competitive and compelling that renting a helicopter would seem a worthy option just to attend Mater Dei-Fairfax, Westchester-Etiwanda and Taft-Dominguez.

In the girls' playoffs, there is one unbeaten team left in the state, and that's Mater Dei (30-0), seeded No. 1 in Division II. The Monarchs have perhaps the best sophomore player in the nation in Kaleena Lewis, who scored 41 points playing three quarters of the Division II-A championship game.

With the hiring of Kevin Kiernan as coach in 2007 from Fullerton Troy, Mater Dei has put in motion a potential girls' basketball dynasty.

Kiernan went 110-0 in league play in 11 years at Troy. Just think what he's going to accomplish with Lewis around for two more years.

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eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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State playoffs

Pairings for the boys' and girls' tournaments. C8

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