By Josh Hunsucker | @jphunsucker
The center of the girls high school hoops universe may be in Stockton, California but Saturday night that universe revolved around Sabrina Ionescu and the Miramonte Matadors. St. Mary’s High School, the No. 1 girls basketball team in America, has hosted the MLK Showcase since 2008. This showcase pits some of the best teams from Northern California against the best Southern California has to offer. The MLK Showcase features a two-day slate of 17 games and this year included nine McDonald All-American nominees.
The Mats, No. 2 in the state and No. 6 in America by the arbitrary ranking poll I subscribe to, matched up against No. 4 (CA) Mater Dei in the weekend’s highest profile game (and a battle of identical Nike stamp unis). Not surprisingly, the host St. Mary’s players and coaches watched and scouted intently as they are no strangers to either team. The Rams beat Miramonte in the NorCal Open Final last year and beat the Monarchs in the State Open Final.
The contrast of styles was clear from the first pass of Miramonte’s four-corners warm-up. The Mats wanted to pressure and run and the Monarchs wanted to grind. The first half can be best described by one word utter over and over again, pace. For the first 16 minutes of play the Mats ramped up the pace of the game forcing countless turnovers by playing at track meet speed. Miramonte coach Kelly Sopak’s substitution pattern more closely resembled the basketball equivalent of two-minute hockey lines. The constant rotation of guards enabled the Mats to maintain the relentless pressure.
Ionescu did not disappoint either. From the opening tip she started off fast, driving and dropping a no-look dish Uriah Howard on the opening possession. A step back three got the decidedly non-partisan crowd ooooing and awwwwing as Mater Dei was forced to call a time out with the lead ballooning to 12-4.
The pressure continued, which frustrated Mater Dei and didn’t allow them to effectively get the ball to UCLA commit Allyson Rosenblum in the low post. With a 21-8 first quarter lead the Mats continued to hit the nitro button. The Mats seemed to improve upon their push and press style in a way only Nolan Richardson and Corey Beck would truly appreciate. Midway through the second quarter the Monarchs were shell shocked, gazing in disbelief around the gym following back-to-back turnovers, literally asking themselves, “what is happening?”
With a halftime lead of 40-18, the Mats effectively put the game into cruise control. The damage of the pressure was done. Mater Dei looked tired. Their shooting percentage and lack of urgency to climb back into the game confirmed that outward appearance. Every Monarch mini-third quarter run was stymied by timely threes from Clair Steele and Keana Delos Santos. Meanwhile Ionescu continued to facilitate the dismantling of Mater Dei to the delight of the crowd: “that girl can play,” “20 got game,” and my personal favorite “don’t get crossed up…ooooh here it comes…[Ionescu hitting cross over step back three and crowd falling over themselves] I tried to warn you, 20’s coming for you.”
In the waning seconds of the game, up by almost 20, Ionescu put her signature stamp on the game. Taking the ball at the near midcourt, she stalked her opponent, pacing slowly forward and crossing the ball through her legs. Then a hard push left, a hard push right, pause, cross, step-back, splash, and the game was over. Ionescu finished with a game high 26 and the Mats cruised to a 65-47 win.
The win moved the Mats up to 4 in national rankings but more importantly the victory was a statement win. The state championship may end against SoCal but all roads run through Stockton. The Mats and Rams have met in the five times in the last ten years in the NorCal playoffs and appear to be on a collision course again this year. Saturday night’s win was a shot across the bow to St. Mary’s that said we’ll see you in March and, like the Mats shooting shirts read, “Believe the Hype.”