It was 17 years ago when Santa Ana Mater Dei coach Gary McKnight was at Pauley Pavilion and facing the nation’s most decorated teenage basketball player, LeBron James. The Monarchs lost to James and Akron (Ohio) St. Vincent-St. Mary, 64-58.
On Friday night, McKnight will be coaching against James’ son, Bronny, a freshman at Chatsworth Sierra Canyon, which faces the Monarchs for the Southern Section Open Division championship in an 8:30 p.m. game at the Pyramid in Long Beach. It’s championship weekend in high school basketball.
“I hope the outcome is better,” said McKnight, the winningest basketball coach in California history. “They beat us but it was in front of a great crowd. It was quite an experience. We did a pretty good job on LeBron, but we were focusing so much on him he was able to hit his teammates with nice passes.”
LeBron James, whose Lakers play in Memphis on Saturday, said of his son’s game: “The unfortunate part for me, personally, I won’t be here. But best of luck to the Trailblazers, that’s for sure. I don’t mean Portland either, by the way.”
Sierra Canyon is 15-0 in playoff games since its last playoff loss in 2018, which happened to be to Mater Dei. The Trailblazers (27-4) are well prepared to face the Monarchs (25-6), having traveled around the country to play in large arenas in eight states. McDonald’s All-Americans Brandon Boston and Ziaire Williams are a potent duo.
But Mater Dei is playing its best basketball of the season after going 3-0 in Open Division pool play. Kentucky commit Devin Askew scored 43 points in a playoff game against Temecula Rancho Christian.
“They got their second wind and are playing really well as a group,” McKnight said.
The Open Division girls’ final at 5 p.m. at the Pyramid will feature Los Angeles Windward, led by freshman phenom Juju Watkins, against Mater Dei, led by Stanford commit Brooke Demetre, a junior.
Two of the best coaches in girls’ basketball, Windward’s Vanessa Nygaard and Mater Dei’s Kevin Kiernan, will match wits. Kiernan has won 10 Southern Section championships. Nygaard has won five section titles, including the last two.
“I think Kevin is such a great coach,” Nygaard said. “I’m always trying to prepare and think what he’s going to do.”
On Saturday, the City Section will hold its championships at Los Angeles Southwest College, featuring the Open Division girls’ final between Palisades and Hamilton at 5 p.m., followed by the Open Division boys’ final between Fairfax and Westchester at 7:30 p.m.
Fairfax is 2-0 this season against the Comets and has a five-game winning streak against their Western League rivals over two seasons.
Both teams struggled at times last week in the semifinals, shooting threes in an arena setting, so the team that rebounds best could triumph.
Azusa Pacific, Ontario Colony and Santa Ana Godinez will host Southern Section championship games on Saturday.
Los Angeles Windward will face Riverside Poly for the Division 1 boys’ title at 8 p.m. at Azusa Pacific, with Studio City Harvard-Westlake playing Fullerton Troy for the Division 1 girls’ title at 6 p.m.