The Mighty Fall

The buzz around the county began during the summer.

This is the year to get Mater Dei in basketball. The Monarchs are small. They're young. The mystique is gone.

Try convincing the other five teams in the South Coast League of that.

The Monarchs, under Coach Gary McKnight, had not lost a game in league play since entering the South Coast in the 1992-93 season. Their last league loss was in the Angelus opener against Servite in 1991. They had won 71 league games in a row.

But cracks in the Monarchs' basketball fortress were showing.

Santa Margarita had upended Mater Dei in the Orange Holiday tournament final, handing the Monarchs their first defeat by a county opponent since they fell to Marina in the 1991 Southern Section Division I-A semifinals.

In earlier nonleague games last season, Mater Dei lost to Santa Barbara San Marcos in the San Luis Obispo tournament and to Long Beach Jordan and Perris in the Ocean View tournament.

Yet there was nothing to suggest something unusual was brewing on Jan. 17, 1998, when Dana Hills and Mater Dei squared off in the Bren Center at UC Irvine.

"We felt going in they were young and that we were a more physical team," Dana Hills Coach Mark Thornton said.

"In practice we told the kids, 'If you go to the [basket], take it strong,' " Thornton said. He also asked them to be aggressive on defense and to rebound.

Although McKee blocked the first three Mater Dei shots, the Monarchs led, 24-14, with about a minute left in the first half. Then the Dolphins got a huge lift.

"With a minute to go, [forward] Todd Pittman had two steals and scored both times to bring us within six at half," Thornton said. "With that momentum I felt we could catch them, hold them off and beat them down the stretch."

That's exactly what happened. Pittman scored 17 of his game-high 26 points in the second half. The Dolphins sank 14 of their 21 second-half shots (after going eight for 25 in the first half) and pressured the Monarchs into committing 24 turnovers and missing 34 of 47 shots for the game.

When it was over the Dolphins had won, 43-46.

"We didn't think about 'the streak,' " Thornton said. "We just wanted to win a league game. I knew Mater Dei had not lost in South Coast, but we didn't bring it up [in practice]."

It would be nice to say that the biggest victory in their 27 years of playing basketball propelled Dana Hills to greater things. But the Dolphins finished third in league.

Mater Dei finished tied with Capistrano Valley for yet another title. The Monarchs beat Dana Hills, 37-35, in the rematch at Dana Hills.

Nonetheless, the memory of that game won't fade soon.

"Whenever you beat a Gary McKnight team you've done something because they are always good and always prepared," Thornton said.

"My kids played well that night and deserved to win. But it was a big-time accomplishment by Mater Dei to go that long without a loss. We won one; they won 71."

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