Mater Dei teammates move in to console Mater Dei guard Rex Pflueger, right, after he missed a shot in the last seconds of Tuesday night's CIF-SS Open Division playoff semifinal against Etiwanda at Mater Dei.

Mater Dei drops thriller to Etiwanda in semifinals


SANTA ANA – Mater Dei missed seven of its 12 free throws.

Those numbers tell the story of how Mater Dei lost to Etiwanda, 52-49, Tuesday in a CIF-Southern Section Open Division boys basketball semifinal playoff game at Mater Dei.

Mater Dei’s quest for a second consecutive CIF-SS championship, and a 23rd section title in Coach Gary McKnight’s 33 seasons running the Monarchs, ended with a loss to the school that beat them in a 2013 CIF-SS championship game. Tuesday’s loss was only the Monarchs’ third in their on-campus Meruello Center that opened nine years ago.

The season is not over for Mater Dei. The Monarchs will play in the CIF state tournament’s Southern California Regionals. They almost certainly will be in the Open Division when Regionals brackets are released Sunday.

Mater Dei will take a 26-4 record into the Regionals as the Monarchs try for a fifth straight state championship.

Etiwanda (23-7), which was 12 for 14 at the free-throw line Tuesday, will play top-seeded Bishop Montgomery in the CIF-SS Open Division championship game Saturday at Honda Center. The time of tipoff for that game will be announced Wednesday when the CIF-SS office releases its complete schedule for girls and boys basketball finals.

Etiwanda beat Mater Dei in the 2013 CIF-SS Division 1AA championship game. Mater Dei beat Etiwanda in last year’s Regionals as Stanley Johnson, now at Arizona, scored 38 points for the Monarchs.

Mater Dei took a 16-game winning streak into Tuesday’s game. The Monarchs had a few of chances to tie the score or take the lead in the final seconds.

Etiwanda junior guard Garrett Carter made a 3-pointer to give the Eagles a 50-49 lead with 18 seconds remaining. At the other end, Monarchs senior guard and leading scorer Rex Pflueger missed a driving bank shot. Carter got the rebound and was fouled with seven seconds to go.

Carter made two free throws to boost Etiwanda’s lead to 52-49. Pflueger banked in a 3-pointer but officials waved it off because Pflueger was fouled before the shot with three seconds left. The Monarchs were not yet in the bonus, so they had to inbounds the ball for another 3-point shot by Pflueger that was wide left.

The loss offset a strong game by Mater Dei 6-foot-10 junior MJ Cage. He scored a game-high 18 points. Cage was 9 for 11 from the floor, made some deep fallaway jumpers and threw down three dunks off of deft passes by Pflueger.

Pflueger, a 6-6 senior who signed with Notre Dame, shot poorly – 4 for 13 overall and 1 for 4 on 3-pointers – but had team highs of 10 rebounds and seven assists. La’vette Parker scored 17 points including five 3-pointers for Mater Dei.

McKnight said more than the missed free throws upended the Monarchs.

“There were some loose balls we should have gotten, too,” McKnight said. “Then there was that third quarter when we were held to four points in the first five minutes. We could have done some things better.”

Carter led Etiwanda with 13 points.

Mater Dei shot 44 percent from the field. Etiwanda shot 39 percent.

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