Players on the Mater Dei girls basketball team celebrate on the court after their victory over Orangewood Academy in the CIF Southern California Division II Regional playoff at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa on Friday, March 17, 2017. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Mater Dei girls win regional with fervent effort


COSTA MESA – The fist pump was as emphatic as they come, and the momentum of it took Mater Dei coach Kevin Kiernan from his spot on the bench all the way onto the court, a few feet shy of the 3-point arc.

His navy blue blazer soon was tossed aside. The tie was the next to go, and the sleeves were furiously rolled up moments after senior forward Cydni Lewis put Mater Dei ahead by 14 with a layup through traffic late in the fourth quarter.

“The tie flew, the suit flew, everything was flying,” a fervent Kiernan quipped. “This was intense!”

While Mater Dei doesn’t have the superstar players on the court it has had in the past, this year’s group has earned the opportunity to capture something that eluded some of those more gifted squads: a CIF State championship.

Lewis scored a team-high 15 points, Nicole Freeman added 11 and junior southpaw Sarah Rahon came up with 11 clutch points off the bench as Mater Dei weathered Orangewood Academy’s early attack and claimed a 50-39 victory in the CIF Southern California Regional Division II final on Friday evening inside a humid Vanguard University gymnasium.

The Monarchs (24-8) will finish their season against the Northern California champion - Vanden of Fairfield (29-5) or Miramonte of Orinda (30-3) - in the Division II final at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento on Saturday, March 25.

“It’s really gratifying,” Kiernan noted. “We’ve had more talented teams. We’ve had national players of the year. But this team is playing as well together as any team I’ve had here at Mater Dei. I just want them to keep playing, and we get to do it one more time.”

Trailing 25-19 late in the second quarter, Mater Dei went on a momentum-swinging 9-0 run in the final 90 seconds of the half. Rahon buried a deep 3-pointer from the top of the key and Jayda Adams drove the lane, elevated and hit a contested jumper with no time left to give the Monarchs a 28-25 edge at the half.

“We needed that because if not, they would have gone on their run,” Adams explained. “The game could’ve gone either way. For us to get that momentum, that was a big trigger at that point.”

From the 1:30 mark in the second quarter to the 1:55 point in the third, Mater Dei outscored Orangewood, 21-2, and took a 10-point lead into the fourth.

The Spartans cut the lead to six points with six minutes to play, but Rahon responded with a baseline floater, a free throw and a corner 3-pointer to put the Monarchs back ahead by 10.

“It’s unbelievable and hard to express how special it is because we’ve been working so hard since August,” Rahon said. “My teammates got me open and it felt good to be able to knock those down.”

The moment was a bittersweet one for Orangewood Academy, which finished the season with a 22-10 record and advanced to its first regional final.

“For Mater Dei and coach Kiernan, who’s one of the best coaches in America, this is the expectation,” Spartans coach Leslie Aragon said. “For us, it hurts because I don’t know when we’ll be back. I’d like to tell you, but we don’t know.

“If they’d have just blown us out the gym, we could say we’re not ready. But 25-19 with two minutes to go (in the first half)? If we don’t give up that 9-0 run, maybe they go away in the second half.”

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