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Bronny James and Sierra Canyon advance to Division I regional finals

Sierra Canyon's Bronny James goes up for a jump shot in the first half of a 64-47 win over Bishop Montgomery.
Sierra Canyon’s Bronny James goes up for a jump shot in the first half of a 64-47 win over Bishop Montgomery in the Division I regional semifinals Saturday night.
(Craig Weston)
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The pieces were always there. The talent was always there. But it took all cushions removed, their season on its last legs, for the Sierra Canyon Trailblazers to reach their final form.

Suddenly, Bronny James is no longer a quiet, lead-by-example sometimes-Robin, but an extremely vocal, poised Batman. Suddenly, Noah Williams is no longer a big with defensive promise and offensive question mark, but a dominant interior presence. Suddenly, these Trailblazers do not roll over when challenged, but punch right back with vengeance.

In a 64-47 win Saturday night over Bishop Montgomery to advance to the Division I regional finals, the Trailblazers looked as if they’d perfected their identity after their worst regular-season and Southern Section Open showing in coach Andre Chevalier’s tenure.

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They rotated on defense with a vengeance, fighting to keep the aggressive Knights off the glass, as James scored 16 points, Williams 15 and junior Osiris Nalls Jr. 14 in the win.

Bishop Montgomery's LaQwon Cole, left, puts up a shot in front of Sierra Canyon's Bronny James.
(Craig Weston)

“We’re trying to get to the place where everybody plays their best game in the same game,” Chevalier said.

This was high school basketball at its finest, separated from Sierra Canyon’s accustomed air of large arenas and celebrity presence, just a tiny gym packed near-capacity and thumping. Dudes ready to guard. Dudes ready to scrap. The last time these teams met in the Southern Section playoffs, Bishop Montgomery won by two points and a late scuffle caused three Trailblazers to be ejected.

So an hour before tipoff in the state Division I regional final, Trailblazers assistant coach Chris Howe surveyed a bubbling Bishop Montgomery gym and remarked this game, simply, would be “three yards and a cloud of dust.”

Might resonate a little better with an older generation, in an older style of ball. That phrase was first coined by legendary Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes, describing a tough style of running the ball. Three yards a pop — and a cloud of dust.

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The first quarter was three yards — rebound after rebound just for the chance to shoot a free throw — and a cloud of dust, bodies smacking against the hardwood. An early 19-8 Trailblazers lead was moot; inside of a sweltering gym and with athletes who didn’t quit, Bishop Montgomery was going to find its way back.

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And after a strip of Williams underneath, the Knights’ 6-foot-8 Xavier Edmonds dribbled up, brutally chicken-wrapped Nalls with a behind-the-back dribble, and tossed a thunderous lob.

It ignited a silent gym, the kind of play that could shift momentum.

Maybe these Trailblazers would’ve folded if this were December. Or January. Even February.

But Williams calmly hit a top-of-the-break three the next trip down, and after snaring a rebound, James glided downcourt and elevated for a pull-up three.

Butter. Three-finger claw. And a yell from James, who’s grown up in February and March before the fans’ eyes, suddenly an emotional ringleader constantly directing his teammates on the floor.

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The shift in James’ mentality, Chevalier said, came after he’s understood how much teammates have wanted his leadership — even if it’s expressed negativity.

“I think it’s going to bode very well for him,” Chevalier said Friday, “as he steps into the next level.”

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Sierra Canyon will play Sherman Oaks Notre Dame in the regional final Tuesday. The Trailblazers have gone 0-3 against the Knights this season. Notre Dame defeated Mater Dei 81-59 in the semifinals Saturday.

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