For Westchester coach Ed Azzam, the opponent didn’t matter.
For just about everyone else, however, it did.
So when Westchester defeated Mater Dei, 71-63, in a highly anticipated matchup of Southern California basketball powers Saturday night in the Division I regional final, it was a significant ripple on the Southland hoops landscape.
They are the top two teams in the state according to almost every ranking service and boast rosters filled with Division I college-bound players. And historically, the teams have combined for 12 state and 16 regional titles — among the most decorated of any in the state — yet this was the first time they had met with a berth in the state final on the line.
“It’s No. 1 vs. No.2 so this was the matchup everybody’s been waiting for all year,” said Westchester forward Dwayne Polee. “This means a lot.”
It also marked the first victory over Mater Dei in nine tries for Azzam, the veteran Westchester coach.
"Playing Mater Dei is great, it's a great win, it's good that we got to play them because it was a great crowd and great atmosphere for a state playoff game, but who we play is, honestly, irrelevant to me," Azzam said. "We're going to the state finals. That's what it means."
Westchester , which will play Newark Memorial next weekend at Rabobank arena in Bakersfield, had to sweat out that trip to the finals.
The Comets (31-3) had a 20-point lead after Polee slashed through the lane for a basket that gave his team a 46-26 lead with 4:56 left in the third quarter. But the Monarchs (32-2) rallied.
Tyler Lamb and Gary Franklin led a charge late in the third quarter and Mater Dei pulled to within a point, 54-53, when Lamb made a free throw with 4:23 left. The Monarchs, however, went cold after that, making only three of 12 field-goal attempts in the final three minutes.
Westchester made eight of 14 free throws down the stretch to seal the victory.
“We don’t break,” said Polee, who finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds — eight points and four rebounds in the fourth quarter. “There was no panic. We knew we just had to slow down and play our game instead of their game."
Mater Dei was ultimately done in by poor shooting. The Monarchs shot 34.9 percent for the game, including five of 29 (17.2 percent) on three-point attempts.
“We didn’t help ourselves,” Mater Dei coach Gary McKnight said. “We were very individualistic in the first half, especially. We shot way too many threes. You wouldn’t know we had a game plan this week. … You shoot 17 percent on threes, you’re going to have a problem.
Another problem was 6-foot-9 Westchester center Reggie Murphy. He had 14 points and 14 rebounds and Mater Dei had no answer for him.
“Murphy was a big body down there,” McKnight said.
Jordin Mayes, headed for Arizona, had 21 points despite sitting significant minutes in the third quarter because of foul trouble. He had 14 of his 21 in the first half and made a clutch three-point basket that virtually ended Mater Dei's rally and gave Westchester a 59-54 lead with 2:55 to play
Lamb did his best to get the Monarchs a victory. He turned in the type of performance you’d expect from a star headed for UCLA with 32 points, 14 rebounds and four steals and played all but 11 seconds of the game.
But the rest of the Monarchs made only nine of 29 shots from the field.
“We took a lot of bad shots,” said Franklin, the California-bound guard who had 18 points, but made only one of 10 three-point attempts.