Of all the great high school basketball programs in California, the team with the best chance of beating Mater Dei is ... Mater Dei. Two of the Monarchs’ four losses this season were the result of relinquishing a large lead by resting on their laurels in the second half. No one is more aware of this weakness than Mater Dei’s players.

“Earlier in the season, our problem was, as soon as a team would make a run on us, we wouldn’t keep punching,” explained senior guard La’Vette Parker. “In the past, we’ve kind of blown it because we’d start going easy on them [a given opponent],” added junior center MJ Cage. “We’d take bad shots and take plays off because we’re up by ten.” If there’s ever a team you can’t afford to take plays off against, it’s the Bishop Montgomery Knights, who entered Wednesday night’s Open Division playoff game against Mater Dei with a sterling 31-1 record and the top ranking in the state.

Down most of the game, the Knights engineered a late 9-2 comeback to make it a 56-51 game with 1:37 left and the ball in their hands. Once again, a Mater Dei opponent threw a late game punch. But this time, the determined Monarchs kept their foot on the gas, and forged ahead to earn a gutsy 65-59 victory.

rnThere’s No Containing Cage

Most nights this season, Bishop Montgomery has had very little problem handling the opponent at hand. But then again, most nights don’t require facing players like the 6’10” Cage. The son of former NBA veteran Michael Cage, Mater Dei’s Cage gave Montgomery fits on both ends of the floor.

Cage scored 17 points in the face of undersized Montgomery’s best effort to hound and double team him. As efficient as he was offensively, Cage had an even bigger impact on the defensive end, blocking seven shots and altering countless others. And Cage got plenty of help from his teammates. Senior guard KJ Smith had the hot hand all night and put in 14 points, while senior Notre Dame-bound guard Rex Pflueger added another seven. But the top offensive performer of the night was Parker, who galvanized the Monarch offense with a game-high 21 points, 11 of which came in the final quarter. Time and again, Parker knocked down clutch buckets during the game’s most crucial moments, and showed great poise at the free throw line, sinking all four of his late game attempts.

rnStifling Stephen Thompson Jr.

Suffice it to say that guarding Montgomery’s Stephen Thompson Jr., the Oregon State-bound senior who holds the school record for points in a career, is no easy task. But Mater Dei was more than up for the challenge Wednesday night, holding the blue chip recruit without a field goal in the first half. The Monarchs’ feisty matchup zone allowed their backcourt players to take turns hassling Thompson Jr. on the perimeter and preventing him from getting clean looks at the basket.

“We watched a lot of film. We knew what he [Thompson Jr.] was going to do,” said Cage. “We didn’t want him to shoot a lot of threes.”‚Ä® Strong first half performances from senior guard Christian Oshita (15 points on the game), sophomore guard Ethan Thompson (12 points) and sophomore forward Jordan Schakel (seven points) kept Montgomery in it, but as they headed to the locker room in the unfamiliar position of being down 34-28 at halftime, the Knights seemed stunned by their inability to keep up with Mater Dei. Even Thompson Jr., an incredibly even-keeled young man, was visibly frustrated.

rnThe Seniors’ Last Stand

A player of Thompson Jr.’s caliber can only be contained for so long, and in the fourth quarter, it appeared the clock had struck midnight on Mater Dei’s outstanding effort to bottle up the senior star. You could practically see the fire in Thompson Jr.’s eyes as he continuously drove to the basket, putting in nine of his 15 points in the game’s final frame. “He [Thompson Jr.] is a really great player,” said Parker. “You gotta give him credit. He didn’t shoot the ball well in the beginning, but he always kept his head in it. I could tell. And down the stretch, he really got going.”

The fourth quarter was also a fruitful one for Oshita. With his Knights down 54-42 with four minutes left to play, the senior co-captain proceeded to score seven quick points, capped off by a layup-foul combo that cut the deficit to 56-51 and caused the crowd of mostly Montgomery fans to erupt (the game was played at Redondo Union High School, a short trip from Montgomery’s Torrance campus).

Oshita missed the free throw, but the Knights forced a turnover on the Monarchs’ ensuing inbound attempt. After a whole quarter of swimming furiously upstream, Montgomery had the ball and were only down by five, with plenty of time (1:37) left to play. The stage was set for Montgomery to complete its inspired comeback. But Mater Dei had other plans.

“We knew that they [the Knights] ... were going to make a run at some point or another,” said Parker. “So we just counted on [our] defense. We decided not to stand back and let them do what they want to do ... [our mindset was to] go at them. Go at them defensively, offensively, and get boards ... and keep punching when we got punched back.”

“We knew we had to just keep scoring,” added Cage, “because in the playoffs, it’s all about the fourth quarter ... In the fourth quarter, you gotta keep going.” The Monarchs generated the baskets and stops they needed to keep the Knights at bay and ensure that their season keeps going.

rnUp Next: Fairfax

The Open Division regional final should be a gem, as Mater Dei will take on City Section Champion Fairfax, another traditionally superb program. Having won round one of this heavyweight battle at the Mater Dei-hosted Nike Extravaganza on February 7th by a score of 47-34, the Monarchs are looking forward to round two. “They’re a great team, and we’re really excited to play them,” said Parker.