Orange County: After surviving moment of truth, Mater Dei hopes to rise to occasion

This is the week Kevin Kiernan earns his money. Three seasons ago, after guiding Troy to four consecutive state title appearances (and three titles), Mater Dei hired Kiernan to restore the program to greatness. It was the kind of seismic shift on the girls' basketball landscape that changed the earth's axis a little bit. It was The Big One: One of the best and most successful coaches would have access to all the advantages of coaching at a private school. "Dynasty" was mentioned almost immediately.

But playing in the same division as Brea Olinda is not without its dangers, and after dismissing Mater Dei from the ranks of the unbeaten and the No. 1 national ranking last season, Brea went on to win its ninth state title.

This season, Mater Dei (31-1) repaid the favor. The Monarchs, who last won a state title in 1996 under Mary Hauser, will play at Rabobank Arena in Bakersfield at 6 p.m. against Northern champion Concord Carondelet (27-5) for the Division II title.

“Our fear, and it's realistic, is that the last game felt like the end of the season,” Kiernan said of his team's 51-46 victory over Brea, which was ranked No. 2 nationally at the time; Mater Dei was No. 3. “The celebration, the end of the game, the emotions -- you come back to school and everyone was so happy, we got the plaque and it's like, 'Oh, you've got one more game?' ”

Last week's victory over Brea was the unofficial state title game, but this week's is the one that counts. That means Mater Dei can't afford to have a flat performance against Carondelet, a program that split two title games against Kiernan's Troy program. Before Lauren Rock blew out her knee and Taylor Spears transferred to Brea, the Monarchs might have been able to survive a less-than-stellar performance against a good team. Not anymore, and that's because Rock and Spears were key elements in Mater Dei's full-court press. “Now, if we're flat, we'll struggle,” Kiernan said.

That's because Carondelet is bigger and probably just as quick. They like to run and press, and if both teams are making their shots, there is a good chance for a high-scoring arena game. Carondelet features 6-foot-3 Erin Boettcher (New Mexico) and 6-2 Erica Payne. It also has a solid sophomore point guard, Hannah Huffman, just as Mater Dei has Jordan Adams.

Jessica Duarte, Mater Dei's 5-11 post player, has scored 21 against Villa Park, 29 against Hanford and 16 against Brea Olinda over the past three games. Her consistency and performance this season is one of the reasons Mater Dei is competing for a national title. Although she will need another consistent performance, as will the team's best player, junior guard Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (Connecticut), the most valuable contributor in a game such as this could be Adams: She focuses on a lot of things besides scoring, but the extra points could prove crucial if Mater Dei is to win what could be a shootout.