Artesia Rallies, Downs Mater Dei

ORANGE, CA --- A thing of basketball beauty it wasn't.

That is, of course, unless your vantage point was from that of a Lakewood (CA) Artesia High player, coach or fan Friday night after the title game of the Orange (CA) Holiday Prep Classic in the Hutton Center at Chapman University.

And then you're of the opinion that the Pioneers' 58-57 victory over the Monarchs of Santa Ana (CA) Mater Dei looked mighty fine, indeed.

The most eagerly anticipated regular-season Southern California high school basketball game in a long while, pitting the top-ranked teams in California – and the far western portion of the country --- drew a crowd that was already SRO (at 2,400-plus) more than an hour before the 8:40 tip-off.

Among those squeezing into the building were the head coaches at UCLA (Ben Howland), USC (Tim Floyd) and Arizona (Lute Olson) and their assistants.

And they were also on hand to watch the third-place game in the 16-team, four-day event, in which Los Angeles Dorsey (led by one of Southern California's best sophomores, forward Jordan Hamilton) knocked off Anaheim Canyon (paced by UCLA-pound junior point guard Jerime Anderson), 69-53.

But by the time the main event got underway, spectators were lined up, hip to hip, in the bleachers, and at least two-deep behind the railing of the upper bleachers.

And, for the better part of three quarters, it looked as if Mater Dei, which came into the contest with a 14-0 record and three seniors (Taylor King, with Duke; Kamyron Brown, with Oregon; and Alex Jacobson, with Arizona) who signed national letters of intent in November, was going to win the game by the kind of margin that wasn't anticipated beforehand.

The Monarchs, with King scoring his final eight points (out of 14 total for the night on four of 15 from the field) in the third quarter, took a 50-37 advantage into the fourth quarter.

But Artesia Coach Loren Grover, whose team took a 12-0 record into the game after picking up tournament titles in Redondo Beach (CA) and Reno (NV), ordered the Pioneers to begin trapping the Monarchs, full court and half court, and the strategy paid off – and then some.

Mater Dei, which committed just four turnovers over the first 24 minutes of action, turned the ball over seven times in the fourth quarter, and missed seven of its 12 free-throw attempts as well.

Consecutive 3-pointers by junior wing Malik Story (who committed to USC more than a year ago) – the last of which was launched from about 30 feet, give or take a few inches – tied the score at 54 for Artesia

Senior guard Lorenzo McCloud, following two free throws with 2:27 to go and a follow shot 24 seconds later after a Story miss, extended Artesia's scoring run to 13-0 and gave the Pioneers a four-point lead.

But just when it appeared as if it was going to be the Pioneers who were going to pull away and leave the Monarchs in their wake, the Artesia players took their turns at being more than a just bit wobbly with the basketball in their hands.

Arizona State-bound James Harden (who helped hold King scoreless in the fourth quarter) lost the ball on a drive with 1:25 to go, sophomore Renardo Sidney (the eventual tournament MVP after finishing with 16 points and 17 rebounds) missed a dunk attempt 17 seconds later and then was called for a double-dribble with 45 seconds to play.

But the Monarchs managed just three points despite all of that generosity.

After a Kamyron Brown turnover (on a palming call) with 40 seconds remaining, Mater Dei's Mike Ure picked off a pass and fed the ball in transition to King – who promptly pulled up and launched from about 25 feet away instead of trying to take the ball to the rim against a back-peddling defender.

Artesia grabbed the rebound and called time out with 24 seconds to go and, after a couple of shaky passes were almost dug out by Mater Dei defenders, Story was fouled with nine seconds remaining.

Can you guess what happened next?

That's right, the usually reliable sharp shooter missed the front end of the 1-and-1 and King slapped the loose ball off Sidney's leg and out of bounds with five seconds to play.

But an under-duress (by the defense of Harden) 20-footer from the left side was well short by Mater Dei reserve guard Blake Arnet at the buzzer, setting off an on-court celebration by the Pioneers and their coaches and an equal display of jubilation by their share of the crowd.

Who would win a rematch?

The high school hoops' followers in Southern California have a bit more than two months to argue about it before they'll likely find out.

The California Interscholastic Southern Section's Division I-AA championship game will be played on March 3. And guess who the top seeds in the division are going to be? Nice guess.

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