Coach Gary McKnight of Santa Ana Mater Dei High School sat stoically on the bench almost until the end, his elbow resting on the scorer's table and his face the same shade of pink as when the game was tied, 10-10, way back in the first quarter.
His assistants smiled a bit, and one or two Monarch players allowed themselves some No. 1 finger-raising midway through the fourth quarter. But McKnight remained the picture of Mater Dei basketball: unwavering, well-composed and always scanning the court for another opportunity.
And then his emotions slipped out. With 2:18 to play and the game well in hand as his team came to the bench for a timeout, McKnight reacted to the moment--both arms, with hands clinched, were thrust into the air to punctuate the Monarchs' second straight Southern Section 5-A title and third large-division championship (formerly the 4-A) in four years.
Saturday night, before a crowd of 8,703 at the Sports Arena, Mater Dei handily beat Gardena Serra, 86-59, for its 58th straight win and the unchallengeable claim as the best team in the Southern Section.
The Monarch front line dominated the entire game. LeRon Ellis, the night-session most valuable player, and all-tournament pick Stuart Thomas each scored 30 points as Mater Dei improved to 29-0 and advanced to the Southern Regional playoffs. Ellis hit 13 of 19 shots, and guard Kevin Rembert came off the bench to add 13 points.
"How can this get old?" McKnight said of the almost yearly titles. "This is the highest spot of high school sports, to win a CIF championship."
Senior Keith Malone scored 19 points, and sophomore James Moses had 16 for Serra, which finished 23-5. The Cavaliers never really contained Mater Dei's scorers, and their offense wasn't much better than the defense--shooting 27%.
"We chose the championship game to play our worst shooting game of the year," Serra Coach George McDaniel said. "We'd play in spurts and cut it (the Mater Dei lead) down, then let up and be down by 12. . . . We just couldn't handle their big guys."
Serra, making its first appearance in a basketball championship game in the 36-year history of the school, had one of its main weaknesses exploited by the nation's No. 2 team. The Cavaliers simply could not match Mater Dei's height, and that was a major reason the Monarchs held a convincing 37-28 lead at halftime.
On offense, Serra, with the 6-6 Moses its tallest starter, had little success penetrating Mater Dei's 2-3 zone, and but for some success at the free-throw line would have been behind by more. The Cavaliers had only two baskets in the first quarter, both by Moses, but made all 12 attempts from the line.
By halftime, they were 16 for 18 in free throws but had made just 6 of 31 shots from the field. Moses led in scoring with 10 points, followed by Malone with 7 and sophomore forward Terry Newman with 6.
Mater Dei wasn't exactly sizzling, shooting 48%, but the advantage inside made the difference. The 6-10 Ellis and the 6-9 Thomas both had 12 points while combining for 11 rebounds, and the 6-4 Rembert scored 9 points off the bench.
The Monarchs, who trailed for the last time with 4:38 to play in the first quarter, built big leads before halftime. With 1:30 remaining, a Thomas layin made it 37-23.
Thomas and Ellis were sharp after intermission, scoring six and four points, respectively, in the first 3 1/2 minutes of the third quarter as Mater Dei went up, 49-35.