ANAHEIM -- The two losses Mater Dei has this season came in overtime, so the last thing longtime Mater Dei basketball coach Gary McKnight wanted was to head there.
Senior forward Xavier Johnson sank two clutch free throws and the Monarchs played suffocating defense on the final possession, escaping with a 61-58 win against Loyola in a CIF-Southern Section Division 1A semifinal Tuesday night at the Anaheim Convention Center Arena.
Sharpshooter Jacob Hazzard's potential tying 3-pointer barely left his hand before it was sent back his way. Khaliq Bedart-Ghani grabbed the loose ball and fired a 3-pointer of his own but missed badly, and top-seeded Mater Dei advanced to face second-seeded Long Beach Poly in Saturday night's title game at the same venue.
"I just didn't want it to get to overtime," McKnight said.
Johnson made sure it didn't, recording game-highs of 23 points and 10 rebounds. His electrifying dunk at the end of the third quarter was exactly what a lackadaisical Mater Dei needed to wake up.
"They made one more play than we did," said Loyola coach Jamal Adams, whose team led by as many as nine late in the third quarter. "We played our tails off. No moral victories."
Recent history between the two added intrigue. Last season, defending Division 1A champ Loyola lost to Mater Dei in the Southern California regionals, 72-70, after leading by nine heading into the fourth quarter. The Monarchs went on capture the state crown in Sacramento.
Tuesday night's affair mirrored that closely: Defending state champion Mater Dei (28-2) went on a 9-0 run midway through the fourth to regain control.
"I think the guys were tired," McKnight said. "We're going to get home at 11 o'clock and going to have to take [Wednesday] off just to try to recuperate for Saturday. I'm been very proud of the guys. We've played such good competition all year and I think it prepares us for games like this."
Loyola (24-5), meanwhile, was stuck on 52 points for four minutes. Sophomore point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright, who had a team-high 17, broke the spell with a clutch 3-pointer. He hit another with less than 20 seconds remaining to make it 59-58. Johnson was fouled and made the two biggest free throws of his life.
"We knew we had two possessions left to get to the championship game," said Mater Dei sophomore Stanley Johnson, who added 16 points and eight boards. "We left it all on the floor there."
Blair Angulo covers preps for ESPN Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.