McKnight's Message Has a Title Ring

Times Staff Writer

When Santa Ana Mater Dei Coach Gary McKnight starts yelling, his players know there's only one way to quiet him: Start performing.

"How come we can't score?" McKnight shouted angrily during a timeout late in the third quarter of Friday night's state Division II boys' basketball championship game.

Leading by only five points, Mater Dei responded with an 11-0 surge, culminated by a dunk from Harrison Schaen. In the end, McKnight and his players celebrated the Monarchs' fifth state title, a 70-49 victory over Roseville Woodcreek before 7,826 at Arco Arena.

Mater Dei (35-2) was supposed to easily defeat Woodcreek (27-6), a team with no starter taller than 6 feet 4. But the Monarchs got into foul trouble and struggled against the Timberwolves' 2-3 zone defense.

"We underestimated them," said reserve guard Trevante Nelson, who was a critical contributor for Mater Dei. Nelson connected on three-point baskets in the second and third quarters to provide badly needed boosts. He finished with 10 points.

Schaen, a 6-9 senior headed to Princeton, started crashing the boards to ignite his team during its third-quarter streak. He finished with 12 rebounds, helping the Monarchs to a 45-23 edge.

Wesley Washington, bound for Minnesota, had 12 points. And there was Maryland-bound D.J. Strawberry, whose defensive quickness bothered the Timberwolves. He had 11 points, 12 rebounds and four steals.

Nine fouls in the first 9 1/2 minutes and poor outside shooting against a collapsing zone defense kept the Monarchs sputtering in the first half. Mater Dei players were so pumped up that they were attempting to block too many shots, resulting in fouls.

After Woodcreek closed to within 22-19 late in the second quarter, the Monarchs picked up their defensive intensity. They forced two five-second violations, got a three-point basket from Nelson and emerged with a 33-24 halftime lead despite two-for-nine shooting from three-point range. Four players had two fouls.

Woodcreek wouldn't go away until McKnight's verbal lashing produced an immediate reaction.

"We bonded right there because the whole game we were playing selfishly," Nelson said. "That's when we decided the only way we can win is to play as a team."

McKnight has called this year's group of players "special," which means a lot considering he's won 17 Southern Section championships in 21 years.

"They're just good kids," he said. "They've accepted roles and made it easy on me."

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