SANTA ANA — The final 66-47 margin might suggest Wednesday's opening-round contest of the Southern California Regional of the CIF State Division I Basketball Championships was just another walkover for top-seeded host Mater Dei High in its march toward a ninth state crown.
But for over three quarters, the upstart underdog Crescenta Valley Falcons were very much a bee in the Monarchs' bonnet rather than a bug on their windshield.
Crescenta Valley overcame an early double-digit deficit to trail by just six at halftime, actually took a lead ever so briefly in the third quarter and entered the fourth still within striking distance, down by eight. It took nothing less than a run of perfection from Mater Dei, which knocked down its first seven shots from the field in the fourth, to put the game away.
"We thought we could play with them," said Falcons guard Cole Currie, who led the way with 13 points. "They're the No. 1 team in California, but anyone who comes out and thinks they can't compete, they're gonna get their butts kicked.
"We wanted to compete and we did, but they're just tough."
Led by 25 points from Xavier Johnson, who combined with teammate Stanley Johnson (11 points) for 13 fourth-quarter points during the Monarch's decisive 14-4 run, Mater Dei (30-2) may not have expected a fight from the Falcons, but starting in the second quarter, it got one
The 16th-seeded Falcons (26-6), making their first state appearance since 1994, when they suffered an 85-54 first-round loss against top-seeded Mater Dei at UC Irvine, strung together back-to-back three pointers by Currie and Christian Misi (11 points) to cut the Monarchs' 10-point first-quarter lead to four with 6:25 left in the first half.
"We told our guys there's no pressure on us in this game," Falcons Coach Shawn Zargarian said. "A lot of times this season, there's been a lot of pressure on us and tonight we just played very relaxed."
Crescenta Valley's first-half offense didn't consist of much more than three-pointers — two apiece from Currie and Misi led the Falcons' overall five-of-13 output — with some big momentum baskets thrown in, such as Davis Dragovich's steal and layup with 1:11 left in the half that cut the lead to 24-21.
It was the Monarchs' own underwhelming offensive performance that kept the Falcons in the game. Mater Dei, which won the Southern Section Division I-AA title on Friday and is ranked third nationally and first in the state by maxpreps.com and eighth in the country by ESPN High School, shot just 30% in the first half and made just three of 15 three-point attempts.
"We told our guys at halftime, we're down six and we haven't even played a good half of basketball," Zargarian said.
Crescenta Valley, which advanced to the semifinal round of the Division I-A playoffs, its best run since 1995, got two more big threes, from Currie and Elliot Wilson, to begin the third and tied the game at 27 with just a minute elapsed in the second half.
Dylan Kilgour then got a steal at the other end, leading to Dragovich's drive for a 29-27 lead at the 6:15 mark.
The lead was short-lived, though, as Xavier Johnson and Jordan Strawberry answered with consecutive scores for Mater Dei and, after the Falcons missed a couple close ones around the basket, Stawberry took a steal coast-to-coast for a 35-29 lead.
"I had three [shots] that were down — just in and outs," Currie said of the Falcons' cold shooting to close out the third period with Mater Dei on a 15-7 run. "That kind of puts you down, but we kept battling. A couple breaks go our way and that's a lot closer game."
Crescenta Valley shot a respectable five for nine in the final quarter, but Mater Dei trumped that easily, going eight for nine and without a miss until the 1:11 mark.
"Both Johnsons, both of those guys are men," Zargarian said. "We tried as much as we could to bang them, but those are Division I basketball players and when they decide they're going to make plays, they make plays.
"I know [the Falcons] are heartbroken because the season's over, but I couldn't ask for a better effort. Our kids did an amazing job and I'll remember this team for a very, very long time."