SANTA ANA -- With two starters out of the lineup, you'd think Mater Dei might have a serious dropoff in talent.
You'd be wrong.
The skill sets might be a little different, but the state's top-ranked team kept rolling on Saturday with Katin Reinhardt on the bench and Eli Stalzer at home sick. The Monarchs scored a 78-66 victory Saturday over visiting Mission Viejo
Mario Soto and Elijah Brown. stepped in for Reinhardt and Stalzer.
Soto hit some big shots, including a buzzer-beater to end the third quarter, and scored 11. Brown was 6-for-6 from the free-throw line and scored 10 to complement the Monarchs' big guns.
Namely, Xavier Johnson.
Johnson scored 28 points and had a game-high 11 rebounds to lead the Monarchs' charge into the Southern California Regional semifinals next week against Loyola, a 48-35 winner over Etiwanda.
The game, though, was competitive and not nearly the one-sided affair it was in the first game of the season, 89-53. For one thing, Mission Viejo (28-5) had its football players this time and that impacted Mater Dei's Stanley Johnson, which no doubt helped keep it close.
Fullback Jahleel Pinner told coach Troy Roelen he wanted to guard Johnson, the sophomore sensation, and held him to six points, none in the first half as Mission hung tough, 34-29.
Evan Zeller led Mission Viejo with 22 points, followed by Max Redfield with 15 and Michael Cramer with 14. Pinner scored eight points, had four assists and a steal.
Mater Dei (31-2), defending state champion, took the lead for good with 3:29 left in the second quarter on Johnson's 3-point basket to go up, 26-25. Brown added two free throws, and James McGee answered two Mission free throws with a 3-point basket.
Coach Gary McKnight said the performance of Soto and Brown wasn't a surprise because they go against the first team in practice. He also said that such a game will only make his team better as it tries to repeat as state champion.
That should make their opponents feel much better.