SANTA ANA -- Gary McKnight doesn’t subscribe to the notion that a loss can help his team. His star player doesn’t agree. And since Xavier Johnson scored 23 points and helped Mater Dei avenge its loss earlier this season to Orange Lutheran, the kid might have a point.
The Monarchs — ranked No. 3 in the ESPNLA top 20 — scored the first nine points of game, opened up a 19-point lead and then rode it to an 84-61 victory over the 10th-ranked Lancers. The game was, in all likelihood, for the outright Trinity League championship. The only reason it wasn’t for a share of the title is because Lutheran was upset 68-65 by St. John Bosco last week.
The victory almost assures Mater Dei (20-2, 6-1) will win its 23rd consecutive league title. Second-place Lutheran fell to 17-6, 5-2.
Lutheran’s loss to Bosco may have taken some of the shine off the matchup, but the game was still played before a crowd that required the upper level of the Meruelo Athletic Center to be opened, and if they got inside for the first quarter, they saw all they needed to see.
“They kicked our tails,” Lutheran coach Chris Nordstrom said. “I warned them. The fire that Mater Dei came out with in the first quarter is the fire that we played with the last game. We couldn’t match it.”
Lutheran committed nine turnovers in the first quarter and didn’t get an offensive rebound until the second. Gabe York and James Douglas, who combined for 49 points in Lutheran’s 59-56 victory over Mater Dei on Jan. 7 —the first league loss by Mater Dei since 2005 — combined for 28, and 13 of those came in the fourth quarter after the outcome was eminent. Both scored 14.
Mater Dei opened a 26-7 lead less than five minutes into the game, and only a flurry early in the second quarter allowed the lead to drop to as few as 11 points. But Mater Dei answered with the next six and the lead remained in the 19-point range the rest of the way. Mater Dei made 17 of 27 field goals (67 percent) in the first half in building a 46-29 advantage.
“That was the best first quarter we’ve played against someone that good besides Florida (Dec. 18-22),” said Johnson, who led Mater Dei with 23 points and 10 rebounds.
Katin Reinhardt scored 16 and Eli Stalzer 14 for the Monarchs.
“We came out with more focus,” Johnson said. “We got a lot more humble after that loss, got more of a passion for the win.
“Even myself, I was thinking we were the best team out there. Us losing helped us get focused.”
Bah, humbug, answered McKnight, the state’s winningest boys’ basketball coach. “I’m not into that stuff,” he said. “No loss helps.
“Everyone plays at a very high level against Mater Dei. You’ve got to meet it, and we didn’t meet it that night.”
Yet McKnight and Johnson agreed on one thing.
“We haven’t been that focused since Florida.”