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Basketball state title games offer a chance to reflect and anticipate

Matchup of the state's two best players in the Open Division championship game and what lies ahead in the sport are reasons to celebrate — and be wary.

March 25, 2013|Eric Sondheimer

The final buzzer of the final game of the high school basketball season has finally sounded, and that means it's time to look back and look ahead.

To end the season with the state's two best players, 6-foot-7 Stanley Johnson of Santa Ana Mater Dei and 6-8 Aaron Gordon of San Jose Archbishop Mitty, facing off in the CIF state championship Open Division final in Sacramento was a matchup made in basketball heaven.

Mater Dei prevailed, 50-45, to win its 10th state title.

"Playing against him was an honor," Johnson said.

Watching the two titans do battle was real entertainment. When they guarded each other, you could sense their pride, their joy and their competitiveness in having the opportunity to challenge themselves in an NBA arena with a state title on the line.

Gordon had 22 points and 20 rebounds. Johnson had 26 points and 12 rebounds; he made five three-point baskets.

Gordon is scheduled to announce his college choice at the McDonald's All American Games in Chicago on April 3. Johnson is a junior who will soon become the focus of an intense recruiting competition, with new coaches at UCLA and USC making him a priority.

There were other highlights in Sacramento.

Jeremiah Headley's dunk near the end of Redondo's Division II championship game was so good it made ESPN's top plays on "SportsCenter."

To see Reggie Morris Jr., 34, in tears after his Redondo team won its first title was a reminder that coaches really can make a difference. His father, Reggie Sr., was a legendary coach at Manual Arts, guiding the Toilers to a Division I state championship 25 years ago.

Now his son has the magic touch. As Headley, a sophomore, explained, "He pushes us. If you're having a bad day, he'll make you get out of that bad day so you can perform."

There was no one who really believed that Redondo, in Morris' first season as coach, could go from 10-17 to state champion.

"It's amazing what young men can do when they get a goal and work toward that goal," Morris said.

Southern California teams won 10 of the 12 state championships in Sacramento. The creation of the Open Division helped public schools win four titles after having been shut out the previous two years.

It's too early to proclaim the Open Division a rousing success after only one year in existence, though Roger Blake, the executive director of the CIF, said, "Fair competition, that's what the Open Division is helping to create."

In truth, there's nothing fair about what links most of the championship teams — transfer students.

Every Southern Section team that won a state title had at least one player who arrived from another school.

But fairness is in the eye of the beholder. This is the way things have become. You can't win a championship without a new player to fill a hole. The CIF has judged player movement legal. And its new rules will only encourage more transfers.

So, if you want an early look at the top teams for 2014, understand changes will be coming once the transfer season has been completed.

For now, Mater Dei, with the return of Johnson, starts out as No. 1. Then there's Etiwanda, Bellflower St. John Bosco, Woodland Hills El Camino Real, Westchester, Los Angeles Loyola, Corona Centennial, Huntington Beach Ocean View, West Hills Chaminade, Chino Hills, Redondo, Compton and Gardena Serra.

But the arrival of one out-of-state or one out-of-the-country player or the decision of a single parent to move his all-star son to a different school can change everything.

It really is the Wild, Wild West, circa 2013, in high school basketball.

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