There’s a new king of high school boys’ basketball in Southern California.
Riverside King, the plucky team that features no superstars, just talent, waylaid mighty Santa Ana Mater Dei, 71-56, for the Southern Section Division I-AA championship Saturday night at the Honda Center.
The second-seeded Wolves used a 15-0 run to close the third quarter and open the fourth to hand the top-seeded Monarchs (30-1) their first defeat of the season. Perhaps the most surprising part of the push was that not a single point came from standout forward Kawhi Leonard.
Leonard finished with an impressive all-around line of 11 points, 20 rebounds, six blocks and three steals, but he was only his team’s fourth-leading scorer. Senior forward Tony Snell and senior guard Taylor Cunningham scored 16 points apiece for the Wolves (27-2), whose multitude of step-up performances seemed to take Mater Dei by surprise.
“That’s what makes us so deadly,” said King Coach Tim Sweeney Jr., who improved to 2-0 in playoff games against Mater Dei counterpart Gary McKnight.
The Wolves also stunned the heavily favored Monarchs in a 2002 Southern California regional final. The star of that game, guard Marvin Lea, addressed players from his alma mater in the locker room before Saturday’s game.
“You’re playing for more than yourself, you’re playing for the school and for Riverside,” Lea said he told the players. “We’re trying to get some respect.”
King earned plenty during its decisive push, which started late in the third quarter with a basket by senior guard Chris Harriel that pulled the Wolves to within one point. Snell then made a three-point basket from the corner to give King a 37-35 lead that it quickly stretched to six points by the end of the quarter.
Consecutive three-pointers by Cunningham and Harriel to open the fourth extended the advantage to 47-35 and sent the Wolves on the way to their second consecutive section title.
“We should have got more stops,” Mater Dei junior guard Gary Franklin Jr. said. “We really pride ourselves on defense, and to let them go on a 15-0 run is kind of frustrating.”
The Monarchs also pride themselves on shooting the ball, something they had trouble doing as King executed its game plan of contesting every attempt by Franklin and junior guard Tyler Lamb. The pair finished a combined eight for 24 from the field.
“Sometimes I think it’s tough when you have a big bull’s-eye on your back and everyone plays their best against you,” said McKnight, whose team has lost in three consecutive section title games.
“They played with a purpose and we didn’t match their energy.”