The CIF-Southern Section Division 4AA boys basketball championship to be played at 7 tonight at Azusa Pacific University is an ages-old paradox.
In one corner, a fast-paced, multi-dimensional Mission Prep offense scoring nearly 20 more points per game in the playoffs than in the regular season.
In the way of the Royals and their first Southern Section title since 1989 is Crespi, which boasts a lengthy, well-organized defensive unit that’s held its postseason foes to little more than 45 points per contest.
Unstoppable force, meet an immovable object.
According to Mission Prep, the key lies not in its ability to score, but on the other end of the court.
“We’ve been sharing the ball really well, and everybody is kind of hitting their stride offensively,” senior guard Brandon Jones said. “So it’s good to see that we can put up a lot of points and a lot of guys can get going, but we still have to have the focus on defense — that’s what’s going to win us this next game.”
Defense has been what’s paced top-seeded Crespi to the championship game.
After holding regular-season opponents to 48.6 points per game, the Celts (23-7) have shrunk the hoop further to the tune of 45.7 points per contest.
“They play a lot of help defense,” said senior guard Quinton Adlesh, the Royals’ scoring machine who figures to draw most of Crespi’s attention. “They don’t give up a lot of easy looks, so we’re going to have to find a way to make them work on defense to get good looks.”
Much like No. 2 seed Mission Prep (24-5), the Celts are far from the tallest team in the division, but Royals coach Terrance Harris said Crespi’s length and defensive philosophy under coach Russell White make it such a tenacious unit.
“They’ve got a little length, and they’re leading two scorers are 6-4 and 6-6,” said Harris of De’Anthony Melton (14.9 points per game) and Mitch Mykhaylov (10.6).
“We’ve seen every type of team, so it won’t be a surprise and it won’t be a shock. We do know we are up against two very good players and more than that, against a very good team. That’s the way it’s supposed to be when you make it to the finals.”
This will be the first meeting between the two teams this season, although they met on the opening day of the Mission Prep Christmas Classic last season. The Celts won 70-67 and got a front-row look at Adlesh, who scored 23 points. The two leading scorers for Crespi then — DJ Ursery and Max Heidegger — are no longer with the team.
“There’s evolution within a season let alone one season to another, but certainly we know the strength of Crespi,” Harris said. “We know they are disciplined on offense and defense, as was evident with their run in the Christmas Classic last year and as has been evident this year in their ability to beat some really great teams in the Mission League.”
The Celts went 9-3 in the Mission League, facing three opponents Mission Prep also played this year in Sherman Oaks Notre Dame, Chaminade and Harvard-Westlake.
The Royals went 3-0 in those games, winning by an average score of 75-69.7. Crespi was 5-2 against those teams — both losses to Chaminade — scoring 55.3 points per game while giving up 50.
Four Royals scored in double figures in last week’s 77-75 semifinal win over Chaminade, with Kyle Stewart adding seven points.
Stewart, a 6-foot-4 sophomore, was playing small forward when he scored 16 points in an early season win over Atascadero as a freshman. The graduation of 6-6 Ian Stake and transfer of 6-5 Kerney Lane left a void in the middle this year, and Stewart has morphed his game to bang down low.
“I still don’t see myself as a center, even though I’m playing it this year,” he said. “But the physicality of going against bigger guys and having to defend bigger guys has been helpful a lot, just having to man up and play defense on bigs.”
He can still step out and shoot 3-pointers, as can the rest of Mission Prep’s forwards, giving shifty guards such as Adlesh and Jones more room to penetrate.
Adlesh, averaging 26.8 points in four playoff games, is clearly the central cog when Mission Prep has the ball, but what has driven the Royals to score an average of 85 points in the postseason — including 90 or more twice — has been all five players on the court showing an ability to score.
“Teams think they can throw a box-and-one at me, but when they do that we have guys that can make shots, so it just makes it easier for me,” said Adlesh, who was named “the best player in the division” in a recent Los Angeles Times article. “I know I’m going to be able to do some things with the ball if they don’t throw two guys at me, but they can’t right now because so many guys are stepping up.
“I’m grateful for the praise that I’m getting — I’ve worked for it, so it’s nice to see — but I really don’t care about any of that stuff. I just want a championship.”