Santa Margarita Catholic's quest for a Southern Section title—on the heels of 11 consecutive losses to end the regular season—is over.
The Eagles were undone by La Verne Damien and a defense that prevented Santa Margarita's big man from ever getting any traction—and a fourth quarter rally that outshined anything done in the first three quarters.
When it was over, second-seeded Damien was holding the boys' basketball 3AA championship plaque, and the Eagles were holding back tears.
Santa Margarita was beaten, 54-40, at Anaheim Convention Center Arena on Thursday. The loss deprived the Eagles of a sixth championship in 26 years and a first in Coach Jeff Reinert's initial season.
All is not lost, however. Santa Margarita (16-15) can redeem itself in the State Division III playoffs which begin next week. Damien is 25-6.
With its best pure shooter, Austin Bennett, on the bench with a broken foot suffered in Santa Margarita's upset of top-seeded Lawndale Leuzinger in the semifinals, the Eagles didn't have the perimeter game to open up the middle for 6-foot-8 Joe Furstinger.
Furstinger, a junior, is the Eagles' first option on offense. His eight points matches his season low. More telling, he got off only eight shots. Among his eight points, four came on free throws.
“Credit Damien to keep the ball out of Joe’s hands,” Reinert said afterward. “They did a great job and we needed to make shots. … We got stops, we couldn’t get rebounds.”
The one player who made a difference in the game was Damien sophomore Jeremy Hemsley, a 6-3 point guard who scored 17 and dished four assists. "He looked like a Pac-12 guy," Reinert said. "If I was still in the college game, I'd be all over him."
Nobody was all over Hemsley on defense, and coupled with some big baskets by Ayo Adedeji, the Damien duo nearly outscored all of the Eagles. Adedeji came off the bench and made seven of 10 from the field, three of four from the three-point line, and scored a game-high 18 with eight rebounds.
Santa Margarita held a 32-30 lead with 3 minutes 7 seconds left in the third quarter—its largest lead of the game was only five points—when the offense went cold and Damien caught fire, sparked by Hemsley scoring out front after hustling for a loose ball.
Santa Margarita scored only two points over the next 6 1/2 minutes and Damien scored 11 for a 41-34 advantage.
Junior Devonte Klines scored on a rebound and went coast-to-coast for a lay-in to pull SMCHS to 41-38 with 3:38 to go. Klines, who scored a team-high 16, drove the lane to make it 43-40 with 2:09 to go.
Damien scored the next 11 points.
Ryan Merritt scored eight and Tyler Strauss six for the Eagles, who were one of 13 from the three-point line to Damien's six of 19.
“We hit a drought on this end,” Reinert said after watching his team make only three of its last 23 shots. “We’re not explosive enough to come back from that kind of deficit.”