The ending to Wednesday’s opening round Southern California regional boys basketball playoff game between the host Mater Dei Catholic Crusaders, seeded eighth, and the Brentwood School Eagles, seeded ninth, was somehow predictable given the Crusaders’ recent post-season results.
For those walking into the building at halftime, Mater Dei Catholic was up by seven points: 27-20.
The Crusaders’ lead expanded to 42-34 by the end of the third quarter. But the hosts somehow did not feel obliged to hold it.
The MDC lead was seemingly safe at 49-40 with 5:30 left in the game but with 3:56 to play, the Crusaders were mercifully hanging on by a 49-47 thread.
Enter Robert Harris. He sank two key free throws with 3:48 left to give the hosts a little more breathing room at 51-47.
Still the Crusaders did not feel satisfied. Their lead was down to a single point, 51-50, with 3:38 remaining and a nightmarish repeat of their San Diego Section Division IV championship match-up against Army-Navy Academy — a 56-50 loss after coughing up a 10-point lead — began to loom in the foreground.
Enter Israel Seales. He completed a three-point play with a shot from the charity stripe two seconds after Brentwood’s Tra Holder had done likewise at the opposite end of the court to once again give the hosts some much-needed breathing room.
As it turned out, the game was just getting interesting.
Perhaps too interesting for many MDCHS supporters.
Iman Chatman-Dixon missed two free throws with 2:45 left. Predictably, the Eagles’ Holder sank a deuce when the visitors received possession of the ball.
Enter Harris again. Another three-point play completed with a foul shot allowed the Crusaders to inch ahead 57-52.
Harris found himself at the free-throw line a few seconds later but threw a pair of bricks at the hoop.
The score remained the same with 2:18 to play.
Enter Spencer Vering. The six-foot-six junior had been limited to just two points in the game to that point. He came through with a pair of clutch free throws to push his team further ahead, 59-52, with 1:53 remaining.
The seconds ticked slowly down as the teams traded shots at the charity stripe.
It didn’t help when starters Vering and Lorenzo Eribez fouled out within 10 seconds of each other, thus enabling the visitors to close to within a point again on the scoreboard, 59-58, with 1:28 to play.
It appeared anyone’s game at that point: the prize being a trip to face top-seeded Gardena Serra Saturday on the road.
But, somehow, the Crusaders refused to replay their disastrous finish against Army-Navy.
Enter Harris yet once again. He sank a pair of free throws with 1:23 to play.
Things got wild in the final minute. The Crusaders managed to run the clock down to 35 seconds before head coach Kenny Caesar called a time-out. They burned another 11 seconds on the restart before the visitors finally got their hands on the ball again.
Good defensive play forced the Eagles to choose their shots. They finally took a pair in the final seven seconds — both from three-point range in an effort to send the game into overtime.
The first bomb hit the backboard and bounced over the bucket; the second shot was short, off the bottom of the rim.
Reserve player Javier Guerrero grabbed the rebound and was immediately tackled by Brentwood defenders.
The partisan fans roared with two seconds left.
But the game wasn’t over.
Guerrero went to the line at the opposite end of the playing court to shoot two. Just one free throw would ice the victory.
He missed the first. The Eagles still had life.
Caesar called a time-out prior to Guerrero’s second free throw. “I told him if he missed it, just not to shoot an air ball,” the MDCHS coach said.
With his team’s season on he line, Guerrero sank his next shot. It was his only point of the game but the biggest point of the game for the Crusaders.
Brentwood’s last shot from mid court missed the mark as the buzzer sounded.
“It was exciting, we had fun,” Caesar reflected after the victory. “Our players play their hearts out each game. Even if this game didn’t go our way, I still would have been proud of their effort.”
Chatman-Dixon, who was hot in the first half, led Mater Dei Catholic with 19 points, followed by Harris with 15 points and Seales with 12 points.
Harris was the go-to man in the second half, according to Caesar.
“Robert came up big for us with some buckets and free throws ... He scored a lot of points when we needed them,” the Crusader bench boss said.
The sloppy final two minutes nearly proved deadly.
“We had some turnovers, we made some mistakes and we got careless with the ball,” Caesar said. “But we put all that behind us. You’ve got to keep thinking ahead.”
And the Crusaders (26-6) are moving on.
Brentwood finished 27-4. Holder led all scorers in the game with 30 points.
Mater Dei Catholic’s girls team, Division IV semifinalists, ended their season as an at-large entry in the state regional playoffs with a first-round 60-52 loss to JSerra (23-7) on Wednesday. MDC, seeded 13th, led 28-27 at halftime. The Crusaders ended the season 20-7.
Ocean View Christian Academy, a Division V semifinalist, also earned an at-large berth in the Division V state regional playoffs, falling by a 45-24 score to fifth-seeded Calimesa Mesa Grande (28-3). The 12th-seeded Patriots finished their season 19-8.