Column: Mater Dei-Bishop O’Dowd basketball title game fittingly caps weekend

Mater Dei's Rex Pflueger tries to steal the ball from a falledn Franklin Longrus of Bishop O'Dowd during the first half of the Open Division boys' basketball state championship game on Saturday.

Mater Dei’s Rex Pflueger tries to steal the ball from a falledn Franklin Longrus of Bishop O’Dowd during the first half of the Open Division boys’ basketball state championship game on Saturday.

(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

State championships in California don’t come close to matching the fan frenzy of Indiana basketball or Texas football, where commitment reaches a whole different level.

Maybe we have too many beaches, too many malls, too many good college and pro teams, but on occasion, a state championship event can produce the kind of drama and excitement to lure California residents out of their comfort zone.

It happened over the weekend at Haas Pavilion in Berkeley, where there were three double-overtime championship basketball games among 12 CIF finals attended by 17,896 over two days (10,533 on Saturday).


The most astonishing ending transpired in the last game, Saturday night’s Open Division boys’ final between Santa Ana Mater Dei and Oakland Bishop O’Dowd.

Throughout the second half, 6-foot-10 center Ivan Rabb of Bishop O’Dowd was trying to inspire Dragons fans to turn up the noise level. By his play (19 points and 21 rebounds) and through his encouragement waving to fans, he helped create a loud, wild, memorable atmosphere.

Bishop O’Dowd’s first lead didn’t happen until late in overtime. And then came an ending that couldn’t have been more dramatic. With Mater Dei down by one point, Rex Pflueger went to the free-throw line with 25.3 seconds left in overtime. He made the first to tie the score and missed the second. Bishop O’Dowd got the rebound and worked for a final shot.

Rabb got the ball low and went up for a shot just before the horn sounded. The officials called a foul. Spectators went crazy. The time remaining was 0.8 seconds. All Rabb needed to do was make one free throw. He had two chances.

On his first shot, the ball didn’t hit the rim. Reaction from the crowd was a stunned shriek. He was given the ball a second time, bounced it twice and made the free throw. Mater Dei inbounded the ball but a desperation shot didn’t come close. The horn went off. Game over. Bishop O’Dowd 65, Mater Dei 64. Teammates chased Rabb around the court to celebrate.

“I had to win the game for my team,” said Rabb, a McDonald’s All-American considering Arizona and California as his college choices.

The noise level in the arena became so deafening that even a Hoosier or a Texan would have been impressed.

Mater Dei Coach Gary McKnight, trying to win his 12th state title, said of the foul call, “It’s not usually called. [M.J.] Cage got the same one at the end of regulation and it wasn’t called. I feel bad for the kids. As a coach, you always want to win, but it’s about the players.”

Haas Pavilion was a one-year replacement for Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, where the tournament returns next season. It proved to be more cozy with its 11,877 seating capacity than Sleep Train’s 17,317, and the acoustics helped create fun times for spectators.

The tournament received a boost from new teams getting the chance to win their first state title, such as La Mirada and La Verne Damien. Their fans came energized and in large numbers.

What made the tournament enjoyable was the quality of play. Sections across the state have been criticized for having too many divisions, thus helping dilute the competition. But most of the games proved to be competitive, and it showed that California is full of top players to follow in the coming years.

It was a weekend that provided convincing evidence that the high school sports scene is alive and capable of prospering.