GLENDALE — As the No. 1 seed in the CIF Southern Section Division 5-AA playoffs, the Flintridge Prep boys' basketball team could be widely considered to be the favorite going up against Muir in the division championship game today at 6 p.m. at Mater Dei High.
With the division's most dominant big man in Kenyatta Smith leading the charge, the Rebels haven't come close to losing a game over their current postseason run, which has the program on the threshold of its first-ever CIF title.
But third-seeded Muir (18-10) has made its living by defying the odds over the course of its own impressive run to the finals and, while welcoming its underdog status, certainly isn't in awe of the Rebels (22-6).
"We're very loose, we understand that [people] have us as an underdog, which we love," Mustangs Coach Gamal Smalley said. "We've played [the Rebels] in scrimmage games, we know them, we grew up with them, kids played travel ball together and everything, so it's not as big as deal to us as it might be to the rest of the world.
"We're just going to come out and roll our sleeves up to play and we know that we've done it before. We'll be up for the task."
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Muir's journey to the finals has been the way its team has pulled together and raised its play after losing two of its best players late in the regular season. Deshawn Hayes, who was leading the team with an average of 18.2 points per game, was dismissed from the team in early February around the same time that Tevin Polk (9.3 points per game) was rendered ineligible.
"Since they dismissed Hayes, one of their better players, guys have stepped up for them," Prep Coach Garrett Ohara said. "I think the key is they have a few good scorers right now in [Dion Nelson] and [Jelani Mitchell]."
Mitchell and Nelson, who are averaging 16.7 amd 11.5 points per game in playoff wins over Oxford Academy, Western Christian, Bosco Tech and Santa Clara, have picked up the scoring slack, but its largely been a team-wide effort that's carried the Mustangs this far.
"[Hayes] was an exceptional player, perhaps the best player in the [San Gabriel] Valley," Smalley said. "Without him, our guys had to really dig and other guys had to step up, as often is the case with teams that lose such a big scoring presence.
"Guys stepped up and played team ball and we got this far, so we're really excited about it."
By proximity of the two schools in neighboring communities, there is some familiarity between the personnel on both sides.
"I know five of their players and we've played together since childhood," Rebels forward Jared Norsworthy said. "I've talked to a few of them and it's good to be going up against Muir."
In lopsided playoff wins over St. Paul, Whitney, Blair and Mission Prep, Smith has led the Rebels with per-game averages of 20 points and 16 rebounds. Through Smith's unselfishness and the frequent double-teaming he commands, other Rebels such as Norsworthy, Kory Hamane and Jedrick Eugenio have had excellent postseasons, as well.
"It's very difficult [to game plan for Prep]," Smalley said. "Not only do they have such a dominant big man, they have great chemistry amongst each other and that's the thing that impresses me the most about them. They don't come down on every play and just look for [Smith] inside. They swing the ball, they have good ball reversal and then he'll get it and he's such a great unselfish team player that he's not crying and screaming for the ball on every play, he's so patient, he'll wait until it comes to him."
Ohara said that even though Smith gives them a distinct size advantage in the middle, Muir is still capable of adjusting to make thing difficult for the Rebels.
"Kenyatta's going to be assigned to a guy who's smaller and might step him away from the basket a little bit," Ohara said. "In this case, it's [Taturs Mayberry], but he'll be on someone shorter. That also means he'll have a little bit of an advantage when we have the ball.
"I think we'll match up well with them. They like to play a lot of different defenses and obviously making some outside shots will be key for us if they decide to pack the paint because of the size disadvantage."
Today will mark the first appearance for the Rebels in a CIF championship game since 2004 and the third overall.
"We're the third [Rebels] team to [make it to the finals] and we have a chance to really make our mark on the school, it's just amazing, it's a great feeling," Smith said. "[Winning a title] would be beyond words. It's my final year with such a great team, [it would be] an unbelievable feeling."