Mater Dei Vanquishes No. 1 Oak Hill Academy

If you weren't there, you probably won't believe it. The national No. 1 Oak Hill Academy boys basketball team head coach Steve Smith called the best he's ever had, the one with seven Div. I signees, traveled west to California Saturday night to play a Mater Dei team starting one senior, three juniors and a freshman. AND LOST. And it really was never very close. The final score, 84-72 Mater Dei, left the capacity crowd at the Pyramid in Long Beach stunned.

Most were hoping for a competitive game in the finale of the Nike Extravaganza VII, but who could have imagined this? Not Monarch head coach Gary McKnight, who'd never managed to beat Oak Hill before tonight.

"Tonight was an upset," said McKnight. "This team's so young; I didn't expect this. We've come a long ways from 7-4 and struggling."

When Mater Dei freshman point guard Mike Gerrity drove the line for two to open the game, no one thought much of it. When Oak Hill turned the ball over on five of its first seven possessions, everyone chalked it up to nerves or jet lag or some such thing. The Warriors will turn it on, everyone believed, and wow us with their athleticism and supreme basketball skill.

It never happened.

Oak Hill never led in this game. Not once. A 2-0 Monarch lead grew to 8-0 after a steal and lay-in from Mike Strawberry. Oak Hill did not get on the board until Carmelo Anthony scored from in close more than four minutes into the game. Mater Dei led, 15-10, after one quarter and 33-28 at the half.

It must have been a perfect half, we all concluded. Sure, the Monarchs (21-4) had come in winners of 13 in a row, but this was Oak Hill. They were sharing the ball well and beating the Warriors down court for easy buckets. Oak Hill only had two assists at the break and, other than Anthony's 13 points, no other Warrior had been all that effective. And the outside threat that characterized Oak Hill teams of the past was nowhere to be found.

Then the second half started. When Sani Ibrahim, the 6-foot-10 center dreaming of the NBA Draft, rammed a dunk through in the opening seconds, it was time for Mater Dei to crumble, right? Ah. . . no. Behind seven points from Trevante Nelson, a 33-30 lead grew to a 44-36 cushion to a 53-42 bulge. Only a Justin Gray steal and spinning lay-up at the close of the third quarter kept Oak Hill within single digits.

The Warriors came out for the fourth prepared to assert themselves. But Mater Dei had an answer for every challenge. Chadd Moore drained a triple for Oak Hill to start the final stanza, but Harrison Schaen responded with a sweet baseline jumper. Anthony hit a free throw, but Wesley Washington answered with an easy bucket inside. Anthony worked hard for a deuce in close. Right back at ya, with a Mike Strawberry score from close range.

The Mater Dei lead swelled to as much as 17, 73-56, with 1:55 remaining. Gray hit three long-range treys in the last two minutes but it was too late and far too little. The final horn sounded the death knell for Oak Hill and set off a wild Mater Dei celebration.

"What does this mean?" asked Washington. "It means everything. We played our asses off. Everyone said we couldn't win, but we came out with heart and showed them what Mater Dei basketball was all about."

Washington, a 6-foot-3 junior, was spectacular all night long. He scored 25 points, most on spectacular attacks of the cup, but also got his teammates involved to the tune of seven assists and snared seven rebounds. Indeed, the difference in the game was how each team involved his teammates. Mater Dei had 26 assists, nine from Gerrity, while Oak Hill had a mere five.

"It seemed like the other players were standing around watching Carmelo [Anthony]," McKnight observed. "I think it took them out of their offense and hurt them."

Meanwhile, Mater Dei was sharing and attacking relentlessly, which McKnight said was the plan all along.

"We told the kids they can't be passive," he said. "We had to go at them and keep going at them."

Everyone played well for Mater Dei. Three other players joined Washington in double figures. Schaen and Mike Strawberry each had 14 points, while Nelson added 12. Marcel Jones, D.J. Strawberry, Chris Henry and Gerrity all made positive contributions for the Monarchs.

Gray led Oak Hill, which dropped to 21-1 with the loss, with 25 points, while Anthony dropped in 24 (with 10 boards) and Ibrahim had 14. It simply wasn't enough.

"They played well and we played about as bad as it gets," said Smith. "But you've got to give them credit. People sometimes think we're invincible, but we're still high school players and you have to play well to beat good teams."

The loss for last year's national champs was the first since 1999. Coincidentally, it also came at the Nike Extravaganza in California. Is there a California jinx at work here?

No, that's just the way it goes," said Smith. "We'd won 18 in a row in California before the loss. I don't blame the travel. We should just be able to play well against good teams. We simply didn't respond well when we got behind.

In other evening session games, FAB No. 6 Vashon of St. Louis handily took care of Long Beach Poly, 70-60; and Green Valley of Nevada squeezed by Santa Margarita. Look for more on these games tomorrow.


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