It's tough enough to defeat Santa Ana Mater Dei once in the postseason. To do it twice doesn't happen often, so there should be no surprise that the Monarchs are one win away from a fifth consecutive state championship.
In Saturday's Open Division Southern California Regional championship game, Rex Pflueger came out on fire, scoring 15 first-half points and finishing with 23 to help the Monarchs defeat Fairfax, 51-40, at the Pyramid in Long Beach.
Mater Dei (29-4) advances to next Saturday's 8 p.m. final at Haas Pavilion in Berkeley against Oakland Bishop O'Dowd.
Long forgotten is Mater Dei's 52-49 loss to Etiwanda on March 3 in the Southern Section Open Division semifinals.
Given a second chance, the Monarchs routed Westchester in their opening regional game, knocked off top-seeded Torrance Bishop Montgomery and then left the City Section Division I champion Lions (32-3) reeling after a first-half performance that saw Fairfax go one for nine from three-point range and fall behind, 31-13, at halftime.
But the Lions fought back in the second half, closing to 41-35 with 3:08 left on a basket by Lindsey Drew, who finished with 17 points.
Fairfax was a different team without junior guard Donald Gipson, who injured his knee in a semifinal win over Etiwanda. Gipson showed up Saturday using crutches and his knee in a brace. His absence forced the Lions to look for new contributors.
Mater Dei's rise in the state playoffs can be traced to opponents having all kinds of problems dealing with 6-foot-10 junior center M.J. Cage, whose shot blocking and rebounding has immensely aided teammates.
Fairfax led the Monarchs at halftime in the Nike Extravaganza in February, before Mater Dei pulled away for a 47-34 win. In that game, Mater Dei Coach Gary McKnight was so pumped up that he spent much of the game standing and instructing his players. This time, McKnight hardly left his seat.
Mater Dei will get to face the state's No. 1-ranked team, Bishop O'Dowd and 6-10 Ivan Rabb, in the final. McKnight will be seeking his 12th state championship.