By Miguel A. Melendez, Staff Writer
SANTA ANA – Whatever halftime speech Flintridge Prep boys basketball coach Garrett Ohara gave, he should type it, print it, bottle it and sell it.
It was exactly what the Rebels needed as they withstood Muir’s 3-point attempt at the buzzer to preserve a 47-44 win in the CIF-Southern Section Division 5AA championship game Saturday night at Mater Dei High School.
Flintridge Prep (23-6), in winning its first CIF-SS crown, avenged its 2004 defeat at the hands of Verbum Dei in the Division IV-AA title game. Muir (18-11) was making its first finals appearance since 1996, when it beat Bishop Montgomery for the Division III-AA championship.
Muir had the ball with 2.4 seconds left Saturday, and inbounded the ball from its sideline. Senior Justin Knoweles dribbled behind the 3-point line and got off a shot that would have tied the game at the buzzer, but he missed the rim, sending Flintridge Prep into a frenzy.
“I was just like, `Please, please, please don’t go in,’ ” said Robert Cartwright, a freshman guard who finished with seven points, four rebounds and three steals.
Flintridge Prep’s Kory Hamane got off a shot with less than 10 seconds remaining to try to extend the lead, but it bounced off the front of the rim.
Kenyatta Smith tapped the ball into the hands of Knoweles, who dribbled it up the Muir sideline before calling a timeout.
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The Rebels were not discouraged despite struggling inside. They shot 20 percent from the field in the first half, trailing 23-17, and needed more time to adjust to the speed of the game.
“It was a really fast tempo,” Smith said. “I was trying to slow things down a bit. We like to play a faster game, but a faster pace at our pace, not the opponent’s pace.”
Flintridge Prep finally dictated its pace en route to 50 percent shooting from the field, led by Smith and Jared Norsworthy.
Smith, the 6-foot-8 forward headed to Harvard next season, missed his first six field goal attempts and finished 1 for 7 from the field in the first half.
“Coach told me to catch my breath, take it easy and focus,” Smith said, “and it was a new start from that point on.”
He found his footing in the second half and muscled his way to a game-high 14 points, 17 rebounds and six blocked shots.
“The thing about Kenyatta is not so much the first shot but the second, third and fourth try that impresses me the most about him,” Muir coach Gamal Smalley said.
Jared Norsworthy finished with 14 points and nine rebounds, but perhaps more impressive was his ability to elude a fifth foul after picking up his fourth midway through the third quarter. Norsworthy motioned to Ohara that he wanted to stay in the game.
“He elevated the game as a senior would,” Ohara said. “I’m just happy he was able to get us some momentum on the offensive end because he’s known to be a great defender, and he’s usually not our primary scorer.”
Muir’s 10-0 run in the second quarter paved the way for its six-point halftime lead. In that stretch, Muir held Flintridge Prep scoreless for nearly six minutes. It wasn’t until Smith hit a driving layup with 1:58 left in the second quarter that gave the Rebels their second field goal since an opening turnaround jumper from Norsworthy.
“Our missed shots really affected our mindset,” Smith said. “We came out in the second half and put it all behind us. Coach said shots aren’t going to keep falling, just get the ball inside and we were able to do that.”
Sophomore Jelani Mitchell scored a team-high 15 points, hitting 9 of 11 from the free throw line to lead Muir. Knoweles finished with 10 points and sophomore Taturus Mayberry had eight. Junior point guard Dion Nelson finished with seven points.
The Mustangs’ valiant fight to reach the finals started long before the playoffs themselves. Muir climbed out of a deep hole in the second half of the Pacific League season and endured departures from two of its most gifted players. That the Mustangs only graduate two seniors (Knoweles, Devon Morgan) very well could mean a return to the grandest stage.
“The team started to jell,” Smalley said. “I think this score was a lot closer than people anticipated. What’s exciting about this group is they’re young. We only lose two seniors, so we’re really optimistic for this program.”