Inland Empire: SoCal Regional Finalist, Centennial

ESPNLA is taking a closer look this week at the Inland Empire basketball teams that qualified for the Southern California Regional championships Saturday at USC's Galen Center. Today, the spotlight is on the Corona Centennial boys’ team, which plays Mater Dei in the Division 1 final at 8 p.m.


Located: Corona.

League: Big VIII.

Resume: The Huskies endured a challenging pre-league schedule, losing to Etiwanda in the championship game of the Rose City Classic in Pasadena, falling to San Diego Lincoln in the final of the Santa Monica tournament and losing a second-round game to Oakland Bishop O’Dowd in the prestigious National Division at the Torrey Pines Holiday Classic. As the only team from the I.E. entered in the National Division, the Huskies finished fifth after beating the state’s preseason top-ranked team, Woodland Hills Taft, in a fifth-place semifinal. Centennial stayed on course in the Big VIII League, posting double-digit victories in 12 of 14 games, and entered the Southern Section Division 1AA playoffs seeded third behind Long Beach Poly and Mater Dei. After wins against Temecula Great Oak, Los Alamitos and Upland, the Huskies shocked Mater Dei with a 60-58 come-from-behind victory in a section semifinal at the Anaheim Convention Center. They couldn’t get past top-seeded Poly in the finals, however. Rematches with Westchester and Taft were the first hurdles in the regionals, and the Huskies passed those tests with ease and confidence. They aren’t getting the rematch with the Jackrabbits they envisioned, as Mater Dei upset Poly to earn its own rematch with Centennial. And those early-season losses for the Huskies? Turns out they weren't so bad after all. Etiwanda was a Division 1AA semifinalist and regional quarterfinalist but couldn't get past Poly either time. Lincoln is playing Fontana Summit in the Division 2 regional final, and Bishop O’Dowd reached the Division 3 final in the Northern California Regionals.

Roster: The Huskies have been building toward this season ever since Dominique Dunning transferred from nearby Corona Santiago following his standout freshman season in 2008, joining fellow sophomore guards Gelaun Wheelwright and Michael Caffey. Now college-bound seniors, the trio are playing with a lot of swagger heading into the program’s first regional final appearance. Wheelwright, who signed with Weber State, has the hot hand lately, matching his career high with 38 points in a quarterfinal win against Westchester and coming up with big shots in the semifinal win against Taft. Caffey (Long Beach State) does most of the ball-handling and is the team's best penetrator but he has been slowed by a sprained right ankle. The week off couldn’t have come at a better time. Dunning (New Mexico) has a knack for scoring in a variety of ways. He’s smooth in transition and strong on the drive but also uses his broad shoulders to generate numerous second-chance points. Against Taft, the Huskies received some key contributions from undersized forwards Deion Reynolds and Dominic Dunlap, and they’ll need to come up big against the Monarchs. Centennial doesn't have a player taller than 6-4 and Mater Dei has a busload of them, but that hasn't posed problems for the Huskies yet.

Reality: Talk about a year to remember. Not only does Centennial's football team advance to the state championships, but the boys’ basketball team is one win away from blazing its own trail. The Huskies have developed such a large following, even head football coach Matt Logan has been spotted mopping up sweat underneath the basket during breaks in play. The problem is, Mater Dei has been here before. Lots of times. The Monarchs even have their own ritual when it comes to traveling to the state championships, from the type of transportation they use, when they leave Orange County and where they stop to eat. In the end, the key for Centennial could be stopping a player the Inland Empire became quite familiar with, former Temecula Chaparral standout junior wing Xavier Johnson, who transferred to Mater Dei in the offseason after winning Southwestern League player of the year honors.

Result: Centennial, 78, Mater Dei 74.