After steamrolling four straight opponents to reach Saturday’s CIF-Southern Section Division 5AA final against Muir, the Flintridge Prep boys basketball suddenly found themselves in a dogfight.
Normally an excellent 3-point shooting team, the Rebels struggled to connect on anything from the perimeter. And for the first 12 minutes, star center Kenyatta Smith was neutralized by length and quickness of the Mustangs bigs.
It wasn’t their most dominant effort of the season. Nor was it their prettiest. But nonetheless, it was worthy of a championship.
The Rebels battled their way back from a six-point halftime deficit and hung on to defeat Muir 47-44 Saturday night for the Div. 5AA title — the first CIF-SS boys basketball title in school history. The Rebels lost to Verbum Dei in the 2004 Division 4AA finals.
“It’s indescribable. It’s the pinnacle of what we’re trying to do at the high school level,” Flintridge Prep coach Garrett Ohara said. “To have a CIF championship — to have the first one in the school’s 76-odd years — is momentous.”
With the game tied at 44-44 late in the fourth quarter, Flintridge Prep senior Jared Norsworthy hit 1 of 2 free throws to give the Rebels the lead with 2:40 to go.
Muir had multiple chances to retake the lead, but the Mustangs struggled to adapt after the Rebels switched to a matchup zone defense. Muir junior guard Dion Nelson missed a 3-pointer with less than two minutes remaining, and Smith skied through the air to snatch the rebound. As soon as his feet touched the court, Smith turned and fired an outlet pass to a streaking Robert Cartwright -- who raced down for a layup to push the lead to 47-44 with 1:33 left on the clock.
Flintridge Prep was unable to push its lead any further, and the Mustangs had one final opportunity to tie the game after the Rebels’ Kory Hamane missed a 3 with less than 10 seconds left in the game.
Muir senior point guard Justin Knowles got the ball and dribbled upcourt, and the Mustangs called timeout with 2.4 second left to draw up the game-tying shot. Knowles inbounded the ball and got it right back. He had a clear look at the basket, but his shot fell just short and left of the cylinder as the buzzer sounded, setting off a massive celebration at midcourt for the Rebels.
“It looked like it was off,” said a beaming Cartwright after the game. “But I was just like, ‘Just please, please, please don’t go in.’ And it didn’t go in.”
While the Rebels’ closest call this postseason prior to Saturday’s game was a 14-point victory over Mission Prep in the semifinals, it was evident from the get-go the Mustangs were the Rebels’ equal and the game would go down to the wire.
Muir sophomore Taturs Mayberry scored six of his eight points in the first quarter, and he did a great job of making life tough for Smith in the post.
Whenever Smith got the ball down low, there was a Mustang standing in his path with his arms extended in perfect position. And when Smith put the ball on the floor one or two more Muir defenders collapsed down, making it nearly impossible for Smith to get a clean look at the hoop.
Smith went 0-for-3 from the field in the first quarter, and the Rebels found shots on the perimeter to be as difficult to come by.
“I thought we did a good job on him (in) the first half,” Muir coach Dr. Gamal Smalley said. “Really solid fundamental defense; just making him earn his.”
And with Flintridge Prep missing shots from the outside and failing to get the ball down to Smith, Muir’s confidence ballooned.
Flintridge Prep went more than five minutes in the second quarter without scoring as the Mustangs went on a 10-0 run to take an 18-12 lead. The Mustangs led 23-17 at halftime, and Smith had four points on 1 of 7 shooting. As a team the Rebels went 1 of 7 from 3-point range and had more turnovers (six) than field goals (five).
But at halftime the Rebels made the crucial decision to abandon the 3 and instead hammer away in the paint.
“You guys have seen us all play before, and that’s not a team that’s not a good shooting team,” Ohara said. “So I had to drill it into their mind that it doesn’t matter if you’re open, you’re not shooting that shot.
“Let’s try to drive, let’s try to get to the foul line and let’s try to throw it to No. 25 (Smith). I think that when that happened we played a little bit better.”
Norsworthy took every defensive rebound, and like a gazelle, he drove coast-to-coast for layup after layup. Norsworthy had 11 of his 13 points in the third quarter — even though he picked up is fourth foul midway through the period — and his layup and free throw gave the Rebels a 28-27 lead at the 3:37 mark of the quarter.
“(He provided a) spark in that quarter and spark in the whole game,” Ohara said. “He seemed to elevate his game as a senior would.”
Ohara said he didn’t really consider taking Norsworthy out of the game after he picked up the fourth foul.
“He was giving us the energy that we needed, he was able to get to the basket and get to the foul line. So we needed, I thought, his offensive production,” Ohara said.
Smith also came alive in the second half on both the offensive and defensive ends. He finished with 15 points, 17 rebounds and six blocks. Five of those blocks came after halftime, as Smith made the paint a “bucket free zone” for the Mustangs.
Jelani Mitchell led the Mustangs with 15 points, but he shot 3-for-13 from the field.
And when Smith was announced onto the court during the championship presentation he was serenaded with chants of “MVP” from the Flintridge Prep faithful.
“Oh my god I lost my head (when the final buzzer sounded),” said Smith postgame, still clutching the Rebels’ new CIF championship plaque. “It was amazing, something I’ve been working four years for. And we’ve been working all season for it, all of these guys since Day 1. Working as hard as we possibly can in the gym, and we just got it.”