ONTARIO -- People talk about Mater Dei's big three, but coach Gary McKnight doesn't see it that way. He calls it the "Big Team," and his squad of front-runners -- they began the season as the No. 1 team in the state and have been there all season despite the target on their jerseys -- took another step Saturday toward repeating as state champion.
Playing the heavy to Fresno Bullard's Cinderella, Mater Dei scored an 85-66 victory at Citizens Bank Arena in the Division I finals of the Southern California Regional Championshps.
The Monarchs (33-2) will play Sacramento Sheldon (29-5), a 61-56 winner over Carmichael Jesuit, next Saturday in Sacramento at 8 p.m.
The big three, err, Mater Dei's top three players led the way against the Knights (31-4).
Xavier Johnson scored 26, Stanley Johnson 18 and Katin Reinhardt 14 for Mater Dei. But Elijah Brown added 14 and five assists, and Eli Stalzer scored eight with three assists and only two turnovers against Bullard's suffocating pressure.
"What worried me is they looked like the team that had the fairytale run that we had last year," McKnight said.
But Mater Dei's experience and height was too much.
Bullard's defense played a part in the game getting off to a sloppy start. Four minutes in, Mater Dei held a 5-4 lead. But then Mater Dei went on a 10-2 run and the eventual rout was on. Xavier Johnson scored eight points during the pivotal two-minute span. Up 15-6, the closest Bullard would get after that was five points at the end of the first quarter, 17-12.
Mater Dei stretched the margin to 42-34 at halftime, and 65-44 after three quarters.
Bullard, which seemed to score a miracle victory over second-seeded Long Beach Poly in the semifinals, had no magic against Mater Dei. The offense mostly consisted of Aaric Armstead, who scored 20 by halftime and finished with 33.
By virtue of its upset of Poly on a desperation 3-pointer, Bullard moved from No. 8 to No. 2 in the state in Division I, directly behind Mater Dei, which returned nine of its top 10 players from last season, including four starters.
But Mater Dei -- which didn't need a desperation heave to beat Poly in the Southern Section Division 1AA finals -- is no Poly.
And Bullard was no match.