SANTA ANA — After sailing through the first four rounds of the CIF Southern Section Division 5-AA playoffs, the Flintridge Prep boys’ basketball team finally found an opponent it couldn’t breeze by in Muir.
And, after looking lost in a tough start to Saturday’s title game at Mater Dei High, the Rebels dug deep and also found themselves in time to make a game-changing third-quarter run and staunch fourth-quarter stand to beat the Mustangs, 47-44, and claim the first CIF championship in program chronicle.
“We just made history,” said Prep senior center Kenyatta Smith, whose 15 points, 17 rebounds and six blocks led the Rebels. “I still can’t believe it, but I’m so happy right now, I’m so proud of every one of those guys.
“We worked so hard to be here and we finally made it. This is it.”
With an average margin of victory of nearly 28 points over its playoff run, Prep certainly wasn’t accustomed to the endgame situation it faced on Saturday. But nevertheless, the Rebels were prepared to protect a slim three-point lead for a tense two-minute span, ending with a missed three-point attempt by Muir’s Justin Knowles with 2.4 seconds left that would have tied the game.
“They got too good a look,” said Prep freshman point guard Robert Cartwright, who scored seven points, including the Rebels’ final two of the game, “but, right now, the feeling’s great.
“It looked like it was off, but I was like, ‘Please, please, please, don’t go in.’”
The fourth quarter, which began with top-seeded Prep clinging to a two-point lead, featured myriad lead changes and neither team ever led by more than four points.
Third-seeded Muir (18-11) would lead for the last time, 44-42, with 3:40 left before Smith tied the game with a second-chance bucket over three defenders after tracking down a long offensive rebound on the baseline at the 3:15 mark.
Senior forward Jared Norsworthy, who finished with 14 points and nine rebounds, put the Rebels ahead, 45-44, with a free throw at the 2:40 mark and Muir’s Dion Nelson missed a three-point attempt at the other end.
Smith rebounded the miss, heaved a long outlet pass to a streaking Cartwright for a layup and a 47-44 lead with 2:00 left.
Muir would get three more chances to answer, the first of which was snuffed out with a block of Knowles’ shot in the paint by Norsworthy. A Prep traveling violation gave the Mustangs another chance, but Nelson misfired on another three.
Muir corralled a loose ball with 11 seconds left, but burned off valuable seconds before calling a timeout and Knowles’ final shot, while a decent look, wasn’t close.
“We had more than [2.6] seconds,” Muir Coach Gamal Smalley said of his team’s failure to stop the clock earlier than it did. “If I hadn’t called [timeout], he wasn’t going to call it, he would still be dribbling. It was tough, but they were nervous on the big stage.”
Earlier it was the Rebels who seemed thrown off their game, but a big-time bounce back for Smith and a critical gamble by Coach Garrett Ohara that paid out big were second-half keys for Prep.
The Rebels trailed, 23-17, at halftime and pulled even midway through the third quarter before staying locked into a one-possession battle with Muir down the stretch.
Smith scored 11 points, pulled down nine boards and blocked five shots in the second half, after the undersized but determined Mustangs slowed, and came as close to stopping Smith as anyone has in these playoffs throughout an ugly first half.
But even before Smith resurfaced, it was Norsworthy who sparked the Rebels back into the game with 10 third-quarter points, starting a run which came directly on the heels of picking up his fourth personal foul with just over four minutes elapsed in the second half.
“Jared gave us a spark in that quarter and just a spark in the whole game,” Ohara said. “He was giving us the energy we needed. …He was smart to play with four and not pick up his fifth.
“I saw that he wanted to be out there and I looked at the game situation and it wasn’t too tough of a decision [to leave him in].”
Immediately after being whistled for his fourth, Norsworthy, who had already scored four points in the quarter, went coast-to-coast for a layup and the foul, cutting Muir’s lead to 28-27.
Moments later, Smith blocked a shot, rebounded the ball and found a streaking Kory Hamane for a layup to give Prep its first lead of the second half, 30-29, with 2:40 left in the quarter.
Norsworthy scored the final two points of the quarter on a layup off an inbounds play to send the Rebels to the fourth quarter ahead.
The frantic first three minutes, during which both teams traded turnovers and sloppy fast breaks up and down the floor, established an up-tempo pace that permeated through the rest of the half.
While both teams turned the ball over and struggled to get good shots, the pace ultimately seemed to favor the Mustangs and kept the Rebels from asserting their ultimate weapon, Smith.
“That was one of our goals after the first half,” Smith said. “We wanted to slow things down a bit because we were losing our focus and we weren’t playing Rebels basketball.
“We like to play a faster game, but a faster game at our pace.”
In the days leading up to the game, Smalley joked that his strategy for guarding Smith was to bring a stepladder onto the court.
As it turned out, the Mustangs’ game plan for Smith was something much more realistic and ultimately effective, keeping Taturus Mayberry glued to him at all times and another two defenders within arm’s reach of him, ready to collapse in on him as soon as he touched the ball in the post.
“We didn’t want to double team him because of those outside shooters,” Smalley said. “We thought that Kenyatta’s going to get his, Kenyatta is Kenyatta – he’s an exceptional talent, great hard worker – but we wanted to try and contain everybody else and I thought we were doing a pretty good job of that.”
Smith finished the half with just four points on one-of-five shooting and the Rebels’ halfcourt offense never slowed down enough to get any of the ball reversal and inside-out movement that has allowed Smith’s supporting cast to flourish in the playoffs. Prep shot just five for 24 in the first half and one for seven from beyond the arc.
“We just needed to stay calm,” Cartwright said. “When they were putting pressure on us, we needed to stay focused and play tough ‘D.’ We knew that eventually a shot would have to fall for us.”
Said Smith: “At the start of the second half, we just put all that behind us and started fresh.”
But in the end, the Rebels were in position to win because they never let the game get too far away from them.
As Smith lugged the championship plaque through the hallway outside the gym, it was clear he wasn’t letting the memento out of his grasp without a fight either.
“I don’t know [how long I’ll hold onto it],” Smith said. “I was trying to put it in my bag, but it wouldn’t fit.”