Trailing by 18 points in the second quarter against unbeaten Santa Ana Mater Dei on Saturday night, Westchester seemed headed for a long, quiet bus ride home from Ontario.
Then something happened that few saw coming — a Westchester surge that swept the Comets to a stunning six-point lead with less than three minutes left in the Southern California Regional Open Division final at Citizens Business Bank Arena. Elijah Stewart's basket put Westchester ahead, 53-47, with 2:48 left.
But Mater Dei (34-0) once again found a way to win, and earned a trip to the state championship game in Sacramento.
Rex Pflueger made two free throws with 47.6 seconds left to break a 53-53 tie, and Stanley Johnson made four consecutive free throws in the final 22 seconds to seal a 59-54 victory for the Monarchs, who withstood a valiant performance by the City Section runner-up Comets (30-7).
Stewart finished with 19 points for Westchester, which rallied from a 35-21 halftime deficit. Johnson scored 19, La'vette Parker had 15 and M.J. Cage 13 for Mater Dei.
"I'm proud of them," Westchester Coach Ed Azzam said. "They had every opportunity to fold and go away and they didn't."
With Johnson playing the role of facilitator, Parker and Cage stepped up to be offensive standouts. Mater Dei's largest lead in the first half was 26-8. Parker made three of four shots from three-point range and had 13 points. The Monarchs made 14 of 24 shots and led at halftime, 35-21.
In the third quarter, a full-court press by Westchester produced turnovers and turned the game around. Stewart got hot, and then in the fourth quarter, Myles Stewart scored six consecutive points to put Westchester on top, 46-45.
Mater Dei will face Oakland Bishop O'Dowd and 6-foot-9 junior Ivan Rabb in next Saturday's 8 p.m. final at Sleep Train Arena. The Monarchs defeated Bishop O'Dowd, 63-59, in overtime in December in Las Vegas.
Mater Dei Coach Gary McKnight will be going for his 11th state championship in 32 years.