The Bishop Montgomery Knights’ basketball squad may be lacking senior leadership, but makes up for it in spades with athletes that play beyond their years. With a starting five that consists of two juniors, two sophomores and a freshman point guard, this year’s Bishop Montgomery squad has flourished in spite of its inexperience, and has been every bit as dominant as last season’s senior-laden Knights roster. And for the second season in a row, the Knights finished the season ranked as one of the top 10 teams in the nation.

But could this year’s version of the Knights replicate the feat of last year’s veteran team by winning the CIF - Southern Section Open Division championship? Despite a strong showing in this year’s CIF - SS Open Division playoffs, which included a commanding win over Orange Lutheran in its opener and an exhilarating overtime win over Damien in the quarterfinals, the answer was ultimately “no,” as Bishop Montgomery fell to a highly touted Sierra Canyon squad in the Final Four.

Though the Knights couldn’t repeat as CIF - SS champions, their poise in high-pressure situations against both Damien and Sierra Canyon suggests they have what it takes, perhaps, to take home what last year’s team could not: the ultimate prize of an Open Division State title. Here is a recap Bishop Montgomery’s exciting week in the CIF - SS tourney:

2/23: Quarterfinals vs. Damien Spartans (ranked 26th in California)

Slow start

Coming off an exhilarating four-point win against the talented Crespi Celts in its previous game, the Damien Spartans picked up right where they left off and took firm control of the pace early on against Bishop Montgomery. Colorado-bound Damien senior shooting guard Bryce Peters was aggressive in looking for his shot in the opening frame, and it paid tremendous dividends; he scored the Spartans’ first eight points, and finished with ten in the quarter.

The Knights, meanwhile, couldn’t even manage to crack double digits as a team in the first quarter, as they struggled mightily to find their rhythm against Damien’s active 3-2 zone.

“I just thought we were pretty passive against it,” says Bishop Montgomery head coach Doug Mitchell of his club’s early struggles with the Spartan zone defense. “We weren’t doing a great job with our dribble penetration. I thought we were passive and tentative early. And when we weren’t hitting our shots, it made us even more passive and tentative.”

“We just [had] to play basketball; play tougher and more aggressively,” echoes Bishop Montgomery sophomore shooting guard David Singleton. “We were playing tentatively in the first quarter, and that’s just not us. We knew we had to start playing aggressive basketball. That’s Bishop.”

The Knights started to look much more like themselves in the second quarter, as Singleton started to find his shooting touch (scoring seven points in the quarter) and the Bishop Montgomery defense held Damien to just five points in the quarter.

Although things started to get back to normal for Bishop Montgomery, the game itself took a bizarre turn right at the end of the half — a basket by Knights sophomore center Fletcher Tynen right as the shot clock and in turn the game clock expired was waived off by the officials, which resulted in 2.3 extra seconds being added to the clock, and both teams coming back out of the locker room to finish the half. On the ensuing play, Peters banked in a three pointer from just ahead of the half-court line, but the game clock didn’t start in time, and that was waived as well. “I guess we both got lucky,” laughs Mitchell.

Back and forth we go

Whereas Bishop Montgomery was tentative out of the gate in the first half, the Knights’ second time coming out of the locker room (well, third technically) was a much different story. Singleton caught fire, pouring in 10 of his game-high 26 points in the quarter. And he got plenty of help, as Bishop Montgomery also received clutch baskets from junior forward Jordan Schakel (15 points), junior guard/forward Ethan Thompson (11 points), and most notably, a frontcourt steal and buzzer-beating three pointer from freshman point guard Gianni Hunt that gave the Knights a double digit lead and had their sizable student section roaring with delight.

“We just had to be more focused,” says Schakel of the third quarter. “We weren’t focused at the start, and that’s on us. Once we regained our focus, we were able to execute and make things happen.”

Despite the double-digit deficit, Damien refused to get discouraged, and came storming back in the fourth quarter. Senior big man Liyam Ryan (who is headed to Washington State next season on a football scholarship) led the Spartan charge with eight of his 11 points in the quarter, and sinking two clutch free throws to knot the game at 47 with less than a minute left to play.

Then, after a basket by Schakel gave Bishop Montgomery the two-point edge, Peters converted a beautiful, Michael Jordan-esque hanging layup with 7.7 seconds left to tie the score yet again. On the ensuing Knights’ possession, a deep three-point attempt by Singleton barely rimmed out, sending this roller coaster of a game into overtime.

Peters once again played hero for Damien in the back-and-forth extra frame, hitting a fadeaway baseline jumper to give his Spartans the 56-55 lead with under 20 seconds left. But luckily for Bishop Montgomery, Singleton saved his best for last, drilling what proved to be the game-winning three-point dagger with 2.7 seconds on the clock.

 “We didn’t call a timeout, because I didn’t want them to set their defense,” explains Mitchell. “We got the ball to Ethan [Thompson], who’s a pretty good decision maker, and he found the hot shooter in David. And David got open with a really nice cut. He didn’t stand still; he got to a nice open area. I didn’t want to call a timeout and let them set their defense; I wanted to score in transition. And David made me look good.”

Singleton was certainly the star for Bishop Montgomery in the win, but it was truly a team win, one in which the Knights displayed tremendous resiliency after surrendering its double digit lead.

“They’re tough kids. They really are,” beams Mitchell of his bunch. “We’re young, and we’re still learning how to win these kinds of games, but they’re tough kids who keep battling.”

“Each one of us believes that we’re going to win the game,” adds Schakel. “We really do enjoy the moment together and believe in each other.”

2/26: Final Four vs. Sierra Canyon Trailblazers (6th in the nation)

Sierra Canyon shoots the lights out

The Bishop Montgomery players would need every ounce of its belief in one another for its Final Four draw versus the Sierra Canyon Trailblazers, a top ten team in the country. Early on, the Knights were game for the challenge, matching the talented Trailblazers blow for blow in the electric playoff atmosphere at the Simi Valley High gym and earning a 16-16 tied after one quarter. Bishop Montgomery benefited from four three-point baskets, two of which came courtesy of Hunt.

In the second and third quarters, however, Sierra Canyon amped up its intensity, and earned a stranglehold of the momentum. “We made some slight defensive adjustments on how we were guarding them man to man, which helped,” says Sierra Canyon head coach Tyrone Nichols. “And we also hit some shots.”

This proved to be an immense understatement, as the Trailblazers generated a whopping 24 points in the second quarter, and followed it up with a 22 point encore in the third. Seven of Sierra Canyon’s nine three-point field goals came during this stretch.

Sierra Canyon was sparked, as it often is, by Nevada-bound senior guard Devearl Ramsey (game-high 20 points), and its blue chip recruits junior guard Remy Martin (19 points) and junior big man Cody Riley (14 points). But the Trailblazers also received outstanding supporting efforts on both ends of the floor from junior shooting guard Terrance McBride (11 points, three three-pointers) and junior shooting guard Adam Seiko (eight points).

“Terrance McBride and Adam Seiko are the two most underrated basketball players in the nation,” asserts Nichols. “They don’t get their due. So tonight, it was nice for them to come out and be able to show how good they are on offense and on defense. The defensive job they did tonight was unbelievable. A lot of times, opponents will just focus on Remy, Devearl and Cody, and rightfully so, but really, Terrance and Adam are unbelievable basketball players and they were able to show it tonight on the big stage.”

“It makes the game lovely,” adds Ramsey on his team’s propensity to spread the wealth in the scoring column. “When we’re all playing together and making shots like we did tonight, I really feel we’re unbeatable. We’re hard to guard when everyone’s playing for each other. That’s what we’ve been doing all year.”

Knights don’t go quietly into the night

With the Trailblazers holding a commanding 62-44 lead after three quarters, the game seemed out of hand, and the “warm up the bus” chants from the clamorous Sierra Canyon crowd were louder than ever. Once again, the Knights needed to display resiliency. And once again, they responded.

Thompson galvanized the Bishop Montgomery comeback effort started, scoring six of his team-high sixteen points in the fourth quarter. And, with just over five minutes left to play, Hunt (14 points) miraculously banked in a corner three and then stole the ensuing Sierra Canyon inbounds pass for an easy layup to cut the deficit to 14 points.

Then, for the second game in the row, Singleton saved his best for last. Held without a field goal through the first three quarters, Singleton shook off the frustration and nailed three consecutive cold-blooded three’s to make it an eight point game with 38 seconds left, and make the Trailblazer fans’ “drive home safely” chants much less confident. A Thompson three pointer with ten seconds left made the score 76-69, the closest the game had been since early in the second quarter.

“We made a couple of sloppy plays down the stretch, but give them credit, they hit tough shots,” says Ramsey. “We knew they weren’t going to go away. They’re a great team.”

“If you leave them open just an inch, they’re going to hit a shot,” adds Nichols. “And we maybe got a little tired late in the fourth quarter. They got open and got some open looks, and they will hit shots if you leave them open. They’re very good.”

The Bishop Montgomery comeback effort, though valiant, proved to be too little, too late, as Sierra Canyon converted the crunchtime free throws it needed (sinking five of six as a team in the fourth quarter) to secure the 78-69 win.