ANAHEIM, Calif. -- If ever you were going to pull a fast one, here, literally in the shadow of Disneyland, would be the place to do it.
That's what Kevin Kiernan figured anyway. Jeff Sink, his rival at Brea Olinda (Brea, Calif.), knows Kiernan likes his basketball fast and furious. So in their Friday night showdown against the No. 1 ranked team in the country, Kiernan had his No. 2 Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) Monarchs pressure, as usual, until everyone's nervous energy was expended, then had them sit in a sagging, 1-3-1 zone for most of the rest of the game.
Egads, it was like lining up for Splash Mountain, and getting Alice in Wonderland instead.
Brea Olinda scored the first four points of the game, but, flummoxed, the Ladycats didn't score again for 6 minutes, 53 seconds. And that, really, could have been the ballgame right there. In addition to being No. 1 in the Powerade Fab 50 for girls' basketball, Brea Olinda was 29-0 and eager to run the table. The Ladycats weren't just looking at a double-digit deficit, they were staring down the barrel of history.
"That's a lot of pressure," Kieran said after his Monarchs pulled off the 63-54 upset in the CIF Southern Section 1AA championship at Anaheim Arena. "We were in that position (unbeaten and ranked No. 1 nationally) two years ago. You end up playing not to lose."
Back then, Brea beat Mater Dei 44-38 in the Southern California Division II championship at Pauley Pavilion. The two teams are expected to be back in that very game, for the third straight year, in about two weeks.
Kiernan expects Sink to make adjustments to his adjustments, but says the Monarchs won't have anymore to offer. If the utter transformation of his team, glimpsed during the sectional title game, proves to be lasting, they probably won't need to resort to any kind of trickery.
In staking its claim for regaining a national No. 1 ranking, Mater Dei looked, well, rather basic. Basic and very good, mind you, but basic nonetheless.
The Monarchs had their gunslinger, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, deliver a couple of threes and 16 very timely points, including three off a magnificent offensive rebound in traffic that led to a successful and-one conversion. They had their live wire in the paint, Alexyz Vaioletama, the USC-bound forward, set an early tone and chip in 11 points and 13 rebounds. They got contributions from their bench -- super sub Jessica Duarte had 12 points, including a pair of threes, while Kiki Alofaitui, the Arizona State signee coming off torn ligaments in her ankle, who added six points and five rebounds.
And they got a real point guard performance out of Jordan Adams, who helped seal the deal down the stretch, and kept her teammates happy and involved to the tune of eight assists.
Adams, in fact, drew high praise from Kiernan for helping to galvanize a team that had, for the past couple years, been extremely talented, but jealousy-wracked and dysfunctional to the point of being self-destructive. Mater Dei was the consensus national No. 1 last year, but Kiernan often has characterized the season as difficult.
"We've moved past that," Kiernan said. "We've got some really good kids. The chemistry is really good. The kids care for each other, on and off the court."
Adams said, "We know that, if we want to achieve our goals, we can't have any of that anymore."
So it happened that the Monarchs played well where every fiber of trust is tested and stressed the most -- at the defensive end. This iteration of Mater Dei doesn't have the speed necessary to pressure the way Kiernan usually likes to, but it has length aplenty. And that length, stuffed into a halfcourt setting, can be daunting. The Monarchs' 1-3-1 put an iron curtain around Brea post Justine Hartman, the UCLA signee ranked seventh among college prospects in the 2011 class, and had enough defenders near the glass to rebound effectively.
The tactic in turn put an onus on the Brea backcourt to carry the scoring load. This is something Mater Dei wouldn't have dared try the past couple years, when Brea had Kelsey Harris, who now does her sharpshooting at Iowa State. The Ladycats' marvelous senior point guard, Alexis Perry, was game, but got her 22 points, along with five assists and three steals, the hard way -- and she didn't get much support.
The nagging question of the evening wasn't whether Mater Dei will continue to see the light, but whether the Monarchs actually created a monster out of Brea Olinda, which won't have to carry the burden of a No. 1 ranking and unbeaten record into what seems to be an inevitable rematch.
"I think they're dangerous anyway," Kiernan said. "Now they're pissed."
To which Vaioletama shrugs.
"It makes it more exciting," she said.
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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. He formerly coached girls' club basketball, was the editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.