ANAHEIM—Down by 10 points with two minutes remaining in the third quarter against one of the premier boys' basketball programs in the state, Corona Centennial had every right to panic.
Yet the Huskies remained cool as an igloo.
Instead of throwing in the towel, they relied on their speed, experience and emotion to get them back into the Southern Section Division 1AA semifinal Tuesday night against Mater Dei, then persevered down the stretch in the 60-58 victory at the Anaheim Convention Center.
“We never panicked,” said Centennial coach Josh Giles.
Centennial (27-3) will return to the Anaheim Convention Center for Saturday’s championship game against top-seeded Long Beach Poly at 6 p.m. It's the Huskies' third section final appearance in school history.
After a 20-3 run gave the third-seeded Huskies a 54-47 lead with about four minutes remaining, second-seeded Mater Dei was suddenly in catch-up mode for the first time in the game.
The Monarchs pulled within one on Eli Stalzer's three-point basket with 21 seconds left but that’s as close as they would get, as Centennial back-up point guard Chris Popov made one of two free throws with 15.9 seconds left. Stalzer was then fouled on the other end as he drove to the basket but missed his first free-throw attempt with 9.3 seconds remaining.
He made the second and Popov was fouled again but not until nearly five seconds ticked off the clock. He made the first and missed the second, but the Monarchs could only manage a half-court desperation shot at the buzzer.
Corona Centennial point guard Michael Caffey was the best player on the floor for both teams, scoring a game-high 23 points, along with a team-high eight rebounds and four assists. The Long Beach State-bound senior hit back-to-back three-point baskets early in the fourth quarter to give the Huskies their first lead.
“He makes their team run,” said Mater Dei coach Gary McKnight. “He just makes things happen.”
Katin Reinhardt scored 22 points, Stalzer had 16 and Xavier Johnson 11 for the Monarchs. All three are juniors and should form a strong nucleus next season.
Mater Dei (27-3) shot 66% from the floor in the first half in stretching its lead to 35-23. The Huskies’ determination never waned, however.
“There was never any guys yelling at each other or pointing fingers,” Giles said.
The tide began to turn in the second half as the Monarchs were haunted by 14 turnovers, allowing the Centennial crowd to get behind their team and get under the skin of Mater Dei.
“We let them get to us, get into our heads,” said Johnson, who transferred to Mater Dei from Temecula Chaparral in the offseason. “It got loud in there.”
Caffey said he wasn’t so much inspired by the crowd as Centennial's bench.
“If you make a shot they’re going crazy,” he said. “Our defense and our bench and our crowd helped us tonight.”