Dave Kleckner admittedly wouldn’t have felt the same exhilaration at the buzzer, but the Etiwanda boys basketball coach’s priorities weren’t a surprise.
After leading by 17 points in the fourth quarter, top-seeded Mater Dei mounted a furious rally, but Etiwanda held on for a 54-51 victory in the CIF-SS Division 1AA championship game Saturday at Anaheim Arena.
“I wanted to hold them to less than 40 points,” Kleckner said. “They ended up with 51 points. We’re used to keeping people in the 30s and 40s.”
The Eagles (27-2) rugged man-to-man defense was on full display in holding the two-time defending state champions to 38 points until a 13-2 run by Mater Dei (30-2) in the final two minutes. Kenny Barnes scored 11 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter to lead Etiwanda, though he missed a pair of free throws with eight seconds left to give Mater Dei one last chance.
Mater Dei star Stanley Johnson, who scored 18 points, missed an off-balance 3-pointer to set off the Etiwanda celebration.
“I’m not going to lie, I was a shaking at the free throw line,” Barnes said. “When I saw the score earlier in the fourth quarter, I was like ‘Man, we got this.’ But we won it in the end and that’s all that matters.”
Etiwanda won its only other boys basketball CIF-SS championship in 2005 with a team featuring current NBA players Darren Collisoin and Jeff Pendergraph. Saturday was the third trip to the finals since for an Eagles team that lost its last championship game to, who else, Mater Dei. The three-point win for the Monarchs three years ago was marred by a no-call on a game-tying 3-point attempt by Etiwanda that was later clearly revealed to be a foul on video.
The Eagles experienced no such problems from beyond the 3-point arc on Saturday.
Etiwanda made all six of its 3-pointers in the first half, getting a pair each from McLaughlin, Darryl Adigwu and Delewis Johnson, who finished with 12 points.
Combined with two significant stretches during which it held Mater Dei scoreless, Etiwanda built as large as a 16-point first-half lead on the No. 1 seed.
“We came out hard and wanted to throw the first punch,” said McLaughlin, who finished with 14 points.
Said Johnson ,“Our coach always tells us to play confident, so that’s what we did. We’ve been playing this way since day one.”
After a two-minute, 57-second first-quarter stretch during which Etiwanda strung together a 12-0 run, it led Mater Dei by 10. After another flurry of 3-pointers in the second quarter, including McLaughlin’s first two, the Eagles’ 11-0 run netted them a 16-point lead. A Mater Dei team averaging 73 points per game was held scoreless for a two-minute, 43-second stretch of the second quarter, leaving it with 13 points two minutes before halftime.
Mater Dei pulled within seven points with a 10-0 run bridging the second and third quarters, jump-started by an aggressive Johnson. But Mater Dei made just one shot from the field during the entire third quarter as what was a seven-point deficit grew to 13 by the beginning of the fourth.
Following a missed Mater Dei layup to begin the fourth quarter, Etiwanda ballooned its lead to 17 points thanks to a floater and pair of free throws by Barnes, who scored Etiwanda’s first nine points of the fourth quarter.
With just over two minutes remaining in the game, Etiwanda’s lead was 52-38.
Elijah Brown, who scored 10 of his 21 points in the final 3:10, hit the Monarch’s second 3-pointer in a 30-second span to pull Mater Dei within 10 points at the 1:29 mark of the fourth quarter. Full-court pressure for most of the fourth quarter flustered Etiwanda into several turnovers, including one that led to a Mater Dei basket that pulled it within three in the final 30 seconds.
But Etiwanda stopped the Monarchs on their final two possessions with one last defensive push.
“I was a little embarrassed with how wen handled things down the stretch,” Kleckner said. “But the kids got the stops when they needed to at the end. All year long we preach not to give up easy buckets, and we certainly weren’t going to do that at the end of a CIF championship game.”