By Steve Breazeale
The last time the JSerra and Mater Dei boys basketball teams squared off against each other, the Monarchs walked away with a convincing 87-66 non-league tournament victory. The Monarchs offense was firing on all cylinders and three of their starters scored in double figures.
Fast forward 26 days and the two teams found themselves in a completely different scenario.
The Lions (9-3, 0-1 league) hosted Mater Dei (15-0, 1-0) on January 2 in a Trinity League matchup in which JSerra held the lead from the opening tip-off until the final four minutes of the fourth quarter, when a late rally by Mater Dei dispelled any chance of an upset and secured the visitors a 53-47 victory.
JSerra started off hot, riding the inside game of senior forward Jamal Aytes. Aytes scored six of his 11 total points in the opening quarter and a buzzer beating 3-pointer from the Lions junior guard Johnnie Vassar put JSerra up 15-8 after the opening eight minutes.
The Lions hot shooting suddenly cooled in the second, when they were outscored by the Monarchs 11-5, as shot after shot clanked off the rim for the home team. The seven-point lead immediately shrunk to one and the score stood at 20-19 heading into halftime.
“The second quarter kind of got to us…The first quarter we went up, making shots. In the second we just couldn’t find a bucket,” JSerra head coach Joedy Gardner said.
Aytes, who was mainly responsible for guarding Mater Dei’s highly touted junior Stanley Johnson, limited his big-man counterpart to just five points in the opening half.
Johnson, who is averaging 18 points per game this season, found himself the target of numerous double teams throughout the night and didn’t get things going offensively until he erupted for 13 of his game-high 21 points in the third quarter.
Johnson’s scoring outburst was held relatively in check by the hot shooting of Vassar, who knocked down two 3-pointers in the third. But Mater Dei’s offense, fueled by Johnson’s efforts, was already coming to life.
After the Monarchs took a 42-41 lead with 3:40 remaining, they didn’t look back.
JSerra had multiple chances to either go ahead or narrow Mater Dei’s lead at the charity stripe, with the score at 42-41 and again, when trailing 47-42, but couldn’t convert either opportunities. The Monarchs closed out the final quarter on a 17-11 run to complete the comeback.
Even though his team lost, Gardner remained upbeat about the Lions effort.
“We’ve never been in a game with Mater Dei. The first game (on December 8) they beat us by 21 points. But in the second half (of that game) we played even with them so we knew we could play with them,” Gardner said. “We just have to learn how to close out games…In the end we missed a couple free throws. But those are the things you can fix. This team is getting better.”
The Lions will now play host to another top-ranked team, as St. John Bosco comes to town on January 4.