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Stage set for epic showdowns in state basketball playoffs

Stage set for epic showdowns in state basketball playoffs
Bishop Montgomery's Jordan Schakel, left, and Ethan Thompson celebrate with fans while holding the Southern Section Open Division championship plaque at the Honda Center on Saturday night. (Nick Koza)

With the state basketball playoffs beginning this week and more twists and turns than a TV soap opera, fans are going to be in a feeding frenzy leading up to the CIF championship games on March 24-25 at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento.

Torrance Bishop Montgomery (27-2) proved itself to be the best team in Southern California for the moment after defeating Santa Ana Mater Dei, 70-55, in Saturday night's Southern Section Open Division championship game at Honda Center.

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But the four teams that have been battling it out all season — Bishop Montgomery, Mater Dei, Chatsworth Sierra Canyon and Chino Hills — are preparing to face off once again.

Bishop Montgomery received the No. 1 seed on Sunday for the eight-team Southern California Open Division Regional that begins Friday. Mater Dei is No. 2, Sierra Canyon No. 3 and Chino Hills No. 4.

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That means it's likely to be Bishop Montgomery facing Chino Hills and Mater Dei playing Sierra Canyon in the semifinals barring opening-round upsets.

When the Southern Section held a doubleheader on Feb. 24, a crowd of 10,258 packed into Galen Center to see the four teams in action. Those two games produced so much drama, excitement and repercussions — Bishop Montgomery beating Sierra Canyon and Mater Dei knocking off Chino Hills — that fans are still talking about what they saw.

In fact, after his team's 70-63 loss, Sierra Canyon Coach Ty Nichols did something lots of coaches still don't believe — he turned over practices and game duties to assistant coach Andre Chevalier for the state playoffs.

"It was an internal decision," Nichols said this past week. "It is unorthodox. But for where this group is, we need a freshness that I believe Andre can bring. I don't think anyone else would do it. I don't have an ego in this. It's about doing what's best for my team."

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Sierra Canyon is 27-2. Chevalier, a former head coach at Reseda Cleveland, Westlake Village Oaks Christian and North Hollywood Valley Torah, coached many of the players in summer ball. He has been an active participant for much of the season. His teams were known to favor defensive pressure and a faster pace on offense when he was a head coach.

Nichols is insisting it was "a strategic decision" he made and not motivated by parental pressure.

"I'm going to give a guy more rope to lead this team," he said.

As if the Sierra Canyon drama isn't enough intrigue, there was Santa Monica Crossroads parting ways with first-year Coach Chad Beeten after his team lost its opening game of the Open Division playoffs. Crossroads is in Division II for the state playoffs with an interim coach.

And there's Chino Hills, which lost to Mater Dei in overtime but now gets back to work after a two-week layoff. Fans will be back lining up and packing gyms to watch LaMelo Ball & Co. fire away. Tickets are going to be scarce, starting with Friday night's first-round game against City Section Open Division champion Lake Balboa Birmingham at a site to be determined.

If both teams don't score at least 100 points, it will be a huge surprise. Birmingham defeated Northridge Heritage Christian, 110-105, earlier this season. Chino Hills has scored 100 or more points 16 times. For those who like to see nonstop offense, dunks and three-point shots from anywhere, it could be the game of the year.

There's one thing certain about the state playoffs: Whomever wins the Southern California Regional final on March 18 at The Pyramid will be a heavy favorite to beat any Northern California representative on March 25.

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Twitter: latsondheimer

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