For the first 16 minutes of Saturday's Southern Section Open Division championship game, Torrance Bishop Montgomery seemed to be playing right into the hands of Etiwanda. The game was a possession by possession defensive grind at the Honda Center in Anaheim. The Eagles opened a six-point halftime lead.
When the third quarter started, everything changed. Bishop Montgomery picked up the pace, got more aggressive and put the ball into the hands of 6-foot-7 sophomore Jordan Schakel. The top-seeded Knights (30-1) came away with a 56-50 victory to deliver a fifth section title for veteran Coach Doug Mitchell.
"I just told them to play like themselves," Mitchell said of his halftime words of wisdom. "We were tentative."
In the first half, Bishop Montgomery kept launching shots from outside and few hit their mark. The Knights shot 19% from the field and were two of 13 from three-point range. Etiwanda missed all eight of its three-point attempts, but the Eagles got some aggressive drives to the basket by sophomore guard Miles Oliver to end the half with a 22-16 lead.
Schakel scored 10 points in the third quarter, giving the Knights some badly needed outside scoring. He finished with 19 points.
Team MVP Stephen Thompson Jr., held to five points through three quarters, started scoring on drives in the fourth quarter or dishing off to teammates. He finished with 13 points. Bishop Montgomery's lead grew to 43-27 before the Eagles made a final comeback bid.
A three-pointer by Oliver with 14.7 seconds left pulled Etiwanda to within two points before the Knights clinched the win by making four consecutive free throws.
This was a game that proved what many have believed for weeks — the Knights are the best team in Southern California. They did it by winning a playoff division that had no weak teams.
"It was a great 16-team tournament," Mitchell said.
Etiwanda was coming off a semifinal upset of Santa Ana Mater Dei. Coach Dave Kleckner is one of the most successful in getting his players to lock down opponents.
But Mitchell, in his 26th season, knows something about getting his players to perform in big games.
Now the Knights can focus on winning another state championship. They won Division IV last season. The state playoffs begin Friday, with the championship game set for March 28 at Haas Pavilion in Berkeley.