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Fryer: Open Division doubleheader has makings of an all-time great night
Gary McKnight has been involved in many huge events in his 35 seasons as Mater Dei’s boys basketball coach.
He rarely has been part of something like this – a high school basketball doubleheader so huge that it is being played at a 10,258-seat arena that might be sold out well before the first game tips off.
The CIF-Southern Section Open Division semifinals doubleheader at Galen Center on Friday starts with Sierra Canyon of Chatsworth vs. Bishop Montgomery of Torrance at 7 p.m. Then comes Mater Dei vs. Chino Hills at approximately 8:30 p.m.
All four teams are nationally ranked. All four teams have star players.
Nearly 2,000 tickets had been sold before Bishop Montgomery, Chino Hills, Mater Dei and Sierra Canyon had advanced through the quarterfinals to set up these semifinals. Courtside seats, at $40 each, were gone before the matchups were guaranteed.
CIF-SS Open Division semifinals
At USC's Galen Center
Sierra Canyon vs. Bishop Montgomery, 7 p.m.
Mater Dei vs. Chino Hills, 8:30 p.m.
Fan info: Ticket info and live streaming info
It has been quite a while since Southern California high school basketball created this sort of buzz.
“This kind of brings us back to earlier times,” McKnight said. “It’s like we’re back to when we won our first title, in 1983. We must have had 13,000 at Long Beach Arena.”
The combined record of the four teams is 85-5. They are the top four teams in the California top 20 – Sierra Canyon (27-1) is No. 1 followed by No. 2 Chino Hills (29-1), No. 3 Bishop Montgomery (25-2) and No. 4 Mater Dei (29-1).
USA Today’s national rankings have Sierra Canyon at No. 2, Chino Hills at No. 10, Bishop Montgomery at No. 12 and Mater Dei at No. 13.
These games are rematches of last season’s Open Division semifinals in which Sierra Canyon defeated Bishop Montgomery, 78-69, and Chino Hills blasted Mater Dei, 102-54.
And the players on display Friday …
Sierra Canyon 6-foot-11 junior Marvin Bagley III, a wicked combination of muscle and smooth moves, is the best player in Southern California. He has scholarship offers from Arizona, Duke, Kentucky and UCLA. Sierra Canyon 6-8 senior Cody Riley signed with UCLA.
Chino Hills’ array of stars starts with 6-2 sophomore LaMelo Ball. One of his older brothers is UCLA freshman/probable 2017 NBA first-round draft pick Lonzo Ball, and another is 6-6, 240-pound senior LiAngelo Ball. LaMelo’s shooting skill reminds me of an Orange County legend of the 1970s, Mark Wulfemeyer of Troy, if not in style but certainly in terms of confidence and range.
Chino Hills 6-8 sophomore Onyeka Okongwu has offers from UCLA and USC, and 6-4 senior teammate Eli Scott has committed to Loyola Marymount.
Bishop Montgomery 6-5 senior Ethan Thompson signed with Oregon State where his father Stephen Thompson is an assistant coach. Back in the 1980s, when he was known as Stevie Thompson, the coach was a great one at Crenshaw High. Bishop Montgomery 6-4 junior guard David Singleton, a terrific shooter, has offers from Arizona, Gonzaga and USC.
Mater Dei has an unmatched history of success. During the tenure of McKnight, who has collected every sort of award a high school coach can, the Monarchs’ average record is 31-3 – no school in the nation can match that. This year’s Monarchs have a tough, smart, fluid-shooting junior point guard in 6-1 Spencer Freedman, a versatile scoring forward in Cal-bound 6-7 senior Justice Sueing, and junior Harrison Butler, who plays bigger than most 6-6 forwards.
Two fairly recent developments added spice to the stew.
First, Bol Bol transferred to Mater Dei and became eligible in early January. He is a 7-foot junior center with the agility of a 6-6 forward and it is fun to watch the way he blocks shots like Patrick Ewing in his prime. Bol is the son of the late Manute Bol, who was 7-7 and had a long career in the NBA.
Second, LaMelo Ball came to the rescue. On Feb. 4, Chino Hills lost to Oak Hill Academy of Virginia in the Nike Extravaganza at Mater Dei to end Chino Hills’ win streak at 60 games. In Chino Hills’ next game, Ball scored 92 points to bring the bright spotlight back to Chino Hills.
We might have to go back 39 years, long before all of these players were born, and probably before their parents met, to find anything that matched the anticipation of these semifinals in Southern California high school hoops.
“The last thing I recall comparable to this,” said Frank Burlison, Southern California’s preeminent college and high school basketball writer, “happened in 1978, when the eight best teams made it to the 4-A quarterfinals and they were played over two days, two doubleheaders, at the Anaheim Convention Center.”
The CIF-Southern Section’s top division at the time, the 4-A Division, had these quarterfinal matchups: Katella vs. Crescenta Valley, Verbum Dei vs. Compton, Long Beach Poly vs. Ventura and Morningside vs. Pasadena.
Great players were all over those rosters.
Crescenta Valley had scoring machine Greg Goorjian, on his way to setting the CIF-SS single-season points record. Katella had Orange County player of the year Ray Donnelley.
There were two future UCLA stars – Verbum Dei’s Cliff Pruitt and Pasadena’s Michael Holton. Morningside guard Byron Scott, well, every Lakers fan knows that name.
Randy Whieldon was one of Katella’s top players on that team.
“We were the last game of all of them, the showcase game,” said Whieldon, who went on to play at UC Irvine and played professionally in Australia.
Katella lost to Crescenta Valley, but that game remains one of his basketball highlights.
“For an 18-year-old who had not been in that atmosphere before, it was exciting,” said Whieldon, now an assistant coach at Capistrano Valley, which is in a Division 2A semifinal Friday . “That atmosphere was electric. It’s been so many years, but I still meet people who tell me, ‘I was at that game.’”
Back then, it was blanket coverage by newspapers and maybe some TV and radio exposure that got the word out. That still exists, but social media has taken over.
“Social media now is the driving force pushing the hype and excitement of grass roots sports,” Burlison said. “After Chino Hills plays, highlights of their games are up on YouTube within two hours.”
CIF-SS official Thom Simmons, who has been with the section for 19 years, said the excitement for these semifinals is reminiscent of when Long Beach Poly played De La Salle in football in 2001. Media credential requests numbered 121 for that game at Veterans Stadium in Long Beach, DirecTV provided a live telecast, and scalpers were charging $50 for $10 tickets.
A Mater Dei-Los Alamitos football game in 1994 comes to mind. Like Friday’s basketball games, that was a major-division semifinal. Both teams were undefeated; the game drew 30,321 to Anaheim Stadium where Mater Dei scored a late touchdown for a 28-24 win.
That football game was moved to Anaheim soon after the matchup became evident. For Friday’s basketball semifinals, the CIF-SS took a bit of a gamble. CIF-SS assistant commissioner Rainer Wulf, in charge of the section’s management of basketball players, would not say how much rent is to be paid for Galen Center. No doubt, though, that these four teams had to get to the semifinals to make it a good deal for the section.
Wulf was at last year’s Mater Dei-Chino Hills semifinal that was played at Ayala High in Chino Hills. It was too small for that game, although McKnight could not have been too disappointed that only a few people would watch his team get shellacked by 48 points.
I was seated at the press table in the chair closest to McKnight’s seat on the Mater Dei bench. Before the game, he set a cup of soda between us. When it was obvious that a rout was underway, McKnight grabbed the cup, looked at me and asked, “Got anything stronger?”
Wulf saw these semifinal matchups developing, and so he reached out to various venues about a doubleheader. USC responded that Galen Center could be the place. The high schools’ athletic directors were apprised of the plan.
“There was nothing but support, and actually some relief, from the athletic directors,” Wulf said. “They were struggling with the idea of how to manage games of this magnitude.”
Games of this magnitude are rare, and not just in Southern California.
“This is not a regional thing,” Burlison said. “This is a national phenomenon.”
Orange County will get a taste of these phenomena March 4 when the CIF-SS Open Division championship game is played at Honda Center.
Right now, though, it’s all about Friday’s marvelous doubleheader.
“It’s amazing how this all came together,” McKnight said. “It really is that perfect storm.”
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