When Michael Cramer fouled out in the closing moments of Saturday's game and walked off the floor for the last time, the Mission Viejo senior received a long hug from his coach and subdued congratulations by every player on the bench.
Cramer's long journey as a senior, and his team's long journey together, came to an end short of a state championship. There was no disgrace in their performance, no doubt that Mater Dei knew it had gotten the best from Cramer and his teammates.
Mater Dei got 28 points from Xavier Johnson and a huge performance from role players Mario Soto ad Elijah Brown in a 78-66 victory over Mission Viejo in the second round of the Southern California Regional Championships.
The contest was vastly different from the one that began the season, an 89-53 loss to Mater Dei in the Diablo Inferno tournament. That weekend, football players Jahleel Pinner, Austin Reuland and Max Redfield were getting ready for the Pac-5 semifinals against eventual champion Santa Margarita.
"All year long, the two things I know we're going to do is compete and play hard—and it didn't matter who we were playing," Mission Viejo coach Troy Roelen said afterward. "I think as a barometer in our first game of the season—and it's a 35-point loss—to today, that shows me that we grew and became better as a team and I can live with our effort. Our effort was really good. And they hit a lot of big-time shots, step-back jump shots. They're more athletic and they have a lot more D-1 basketball players than we do."
Cramer was the highest-scoring of the three seniors on the team with 14 points despite a disappointing 0-for-5 performance from beyond the three-point arc. He also had five assists, and Reuland had three assists to go with five points.
Mater Dei, the defending Division I State champion, had nine of its top 10 players return this season, and that didn't include Brown—the son of new Lakers' coach Mike Brown.
They filled in for a couple of guards who were under the weather, Eli Stalzer and UNLV-bound Katin Reinhardt. Soto scored 11 points and Brown scored 10, and it played a huge role in the outcome.
For its part, Mission did something that it needed to do; Pinner shut down Mater Dei's Stanley Johnson and held him to only six points, five rebounds and an assist. Pinner's numbers: eight points, three rebounds, four assists.
Pinner is headed to USC next year to play football.
Mission Viejo, which nearly beat Orange Lutheran in the Southern Section Division 1A Championship, hung with Mater Dei through the better part of three quarters. They were down 43-40 before Xavier Johnson buried two free throws and Jordan Strawberry—Darryl Strawberry's son—scored on a drive and then added a three-point play for a 50-40 margin.
That was too much, and Mission never got closer than six points after that. It trailed 54-45 after three quarters.
Junior Evan Zeller scored 22 and was briliant in the early going as Mission made four of its first five field goal attempts and had Mater Dei scrambling for a timeout after falling behind, 12-3.
Another junior, Max Redfield, scored 11 of his 15 points in the second half for the Diablos, who fell behind by as many as 17 late in the game.