Los Angeles Preps: Reggie Murphy

As Westchester High prepares to defend its state Division I title Saturday night, it may have more to overcome than opponent Newark Memorial.

Complacency is a danger factor in play after the Comets defeated Santa Ana Mater Dei last week in a Southern California regional title game that matched what many believed were the top two teams in the state.

But coach Ed Azzam has sounded all season like a coach who hasn’t had to worry much about this team. Even though the team is filled with Division I college prospects such as Dwayne Polee, Jordin Mayes, and Kareem Jamar, it is a team that plays together and stays together, no matter the situation.

“That won’t be an issue at all with these guys,” Azzam said. “They’ve been there and they know what it takes. It's a fun team that's shown a lot of poise and a lot of character for the last two years. They've been as enjoyable as hell to coach.”

The defending champion Comets (31-3) are seeking their sixth state title and history indicates they have a pretty good shot: They are 5-0 in state championship games. A repeat would make them the first Division I team to do so since they turned the trick in 2002-03.

They will face a Newark Memorial defense that has given up only 44.9 points a game this season. Westchester averages 72 a game.

The Cougars don’t have a lot of size, with Khion Shankey and Kendall Andrews, the team’s top two scorers, topping out the team at 6 feet 4. That could present serious matchup problems with 6-6 Polee and 6-9 Reggie Murphy, who dominated the paint against Mater Dei.

Memorial (30-4) has never won a state title in basketball, losing the 2000 Division II title game in its only previous championship game appearance. The teams have both defeated Taft and Fairfax this season. Memorial defeated Taft, 48-41, and Fairfax, 50-34.

Westchester, which is undefeated against teams from California, defeated Taft twice, 71-62 and 70-60, and Fairfax twice, 72-39 and 80-44.

The odds seem to favor Westchester, but Azzam said this team would be concerned with any of that.

“A lead doesn't mean anything, a deficit doesn't mean anything, they just play,” Azzam said. “They just have a way, a poise; they're unselfish, they don't get rattled. It irritates the hell out of me sometimes.”
For Westchester coach Ed Azzam, the opponent didn’t matter.

For just about everyone else, however, it did.

So when Westchester defeated Mater Dei, 71-63, in a highly anticipated matchup of Southern California basketball powers Saturday night in the Division I regional final, it was a significant ripple on the Southland hoops landscape.

They are the top two teams in the state according to almost every ranking service and boast rosters filled with Division I college-bound players. And historically, the teams have combined for 12 state and 16 regional titles — among the most decorated of any in the state — yet this was the first time they had met with a berth in the state final on the line.

“It’s No. 1 vs. No.2 so this was the matchup everybody’s been waiting for all year,” said Westchester forward Dwayne Polee. “This means a lot.”

It also marked the first victory over Mater Dei in nine tries for Azzam, the veteran Westchester coach.

"Playing Mater Dei is great, it's a great win, it's good that we got to play them because it was a great crowd and great atmosphere for a state playoff game, but who we play is, honestly, irrelevant to me," Azzam said. "We're going to the state finals. That's what it means."

Westchester , which will play Newark Memorial next weekend at Rabobank arena in Bakersfield, had to sweat out that trip to the finals.

The Comets (31-3) had a 20-point lead after Polee slashed through the lane for a basket that gave his team a 46-26 lead with 4:56 left in the third quarter. But the Monarchs (32-2) rallied.

Tyler Lamb and Gary Franklin led a charge late in the third quarter and Mater Dei pulled to within a point, 54-53, when Lamb made a free throw with 4:23 left. The Monarchs, however, went cold after that, making only three of 12 field-goal attempts in the final three minutes.

Westchester made eight of 14 free throws down the stretch to seal the victory.

“We don’t break,” said Polee, who finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds — eight points and four rebounds in the fourth quarter. “There was no panic. We knew we just had to slow down and play our game instead of their game."

Mater Dei was ultimately done in by poor shooting. The Monarchs shot 34.9 percent for the game, including five of 29 (17.2 percent) on three-point attempts.

“We didn’t help ourselves,” Mater Dei coach Gary McKnight said. “We were very individualistic in the first half, especially. We shot way too many threes. You wouldn’t know we had a game plan this week. … You shoot 17 percent on threes, you’re going to have a problem.

Another problem was 6-foot-9 Westchester center Reggie Murphy. He had 14 points and 14 rebounds and Mater Dei had no answer for him.

“Murphy was a big body down there,” McKnight said.

Jordin Mayes, headed for Arizona, had 21 points despite sitting significant minutes in the third quarter because of foul trouble. He had 14 of his 21 in the first half and made a clutch three-point basket that virtually ended Mater Dei's rally and gave Westchester a 59-54 lead with 2:55 to play

Lamb did his best to get the Monarchs a victory. He turned in the type of performance you’d expect from a star headed for UCLA with 32 points, 14 rebounds and four steals and played all but 11 seconds of the game.

But the rest of the Monarchs made only nine of 29 shots from the field.

“We took a lot of bad shots,” said Franklin, the California-bound guard who had 18 points, but made only one of 10 three-point attempts.
The game is almost upon us, but the showdown for Southern California basketball supremacy between Santa Ana Mater Dei and Westchester can’t come soon enough for high school basketball fans, who have been waiting a long time for the clash of the Southland titans.

How long? Try forever.

When top-seeded Mater Dei and No. 2 Westchester take the court in the Southern California Division I regional final Saturday night at 8 p.m. at the Galen Center, it will be a highly-anticipated clash between what many consider the top two teams in the state.

It will also be the first time the teams, which have a combined 12 state titles and 16 regional championships, have ever met in a regional final.

“Hard to believe, but it’s true,” Mater Dei Coach Gary McKnight said.

They have met eight times in tournaments and early-round regional action since McKnight became coach in 1982 and Mater Dei has won all eight of those games--including a 91-89, double-overtime victory in the 2006 Nike Extravaganza the last time they met.

But never before has a trip to the state final been at stake when the powerhouses have met and fans aren’t the only ones who can’t wait.

“As much as we try not to think about it, all year we’ve been hearing talk about Mater Dei and Westchester, Mater Dei and Westchester,” said Mater Dei guard Tyler Lamb. “So now that it’s finally here, it’s like, we’ve been anticipating it for so long—not looking past the teams we’ve been playing, but just having that thought in the back of our head. So now it’s here and I know all my guys are excited.”

Part of the reason they have never met in a regional final is because from 2002-2008, the state used enrollment-based divisions and Mater Dei was bumped down to Division II. It just so happened that Westchester emerged as a state power during that time, winning state titles in 2002, ’03 and ’05.

Mater Dei returned to Division I last year, and the two were on a collision course for the regional final, but top-seeded Mater Dei was upset at home by Fairfax. Westchester went on to win the state title.

“It’s been hard not to think about Mater Dei,” said Westchester forward Dwayne Polee. “A lot of people want to see that game. We just hope we can keep the momentum we’ve had throughout the playoffs.”

The teams might not have met since 2006, but the players know each other well. Many of them play with and against each other in summer leagues.

Westchester (30-3), with Arizona-bound Jordin Mayes and uncommitted, but highly-recruited Division I prospects Polee and Reggie Murphy, has relied on a suffocating defense that is giving up only 50 points a game during its current playoff run and has won its seven playoff games by an average of 24.6 points.

Mater Dei (32-1) boasts a lineup loaded with Pac-10 recruits Lamb (UCLA), Gary Franklin (California) and Keala King (Arizona State) and is averaging 85.6 points in its seven playoff games.

So who will prevail?

“Westchester,” said Woodland Hills Taft Coach Derrick Taylor, whose team lost to Westchester, 70-60, in the City Section final and to Mater Dei, 75-73, in the regional semifinal.

“Westchester can defend a little better. Points are going to be hard to come by against Westchester. [Mater Dei] shot 50% against us. They won’t do that against Westchester. They are simply one of the most dominant defensive teams I’ve ever played against.”

That much will be determined Saturday night. What’s already known is that it’s been a long time since a high school game has been so highly anticipated.

“It’s a classic high school matchup,” Westchester Coach Ed Azzam said. “It’s two of the most decorated teams of the last decade. It’s Southern Section versus City Section.”

And, with Mater Dei ranked No. 1 in the state and Westchester No. 2 by virtually every ranking service, it’s pretty much for all the marbles.