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CHATSWORTH — Master and his assortment of defenses versus the star pupil. Caia Elisaldez playing physical defense against star guard Juju Watkins. A couple of fans were ejected from the gym, and a second-half surge from the underdog.
None of those factors distracted the Sierra Canyon’s girls basketball team Saturday from its mission of defending its CIF State Open Division championship.
The USC-bound Watkins scored 26 points and added 12 rebounds and three blocks to lead the top-seeded Trailblazers past visiting No. 4 seed Mater Dei 59-47 in a physical Open Division semifinal game in the CIF Southern California Regional playoffs.
“We just always talk about whoever is in front of us is in our way for a championship,” said Sierra Canyon coach Alicia Komaki, whose team improved to 31-0. “It doesn’t matter the legacy of the team or if it is my former head coach.
“None of that stuff matters to us. We just want to win,” she added. “There’s stories for everybody else, which is great, but there’s no stories for us.”
Sierra Canyon’s play continues to be the real story. The Trailblazers, ranked No. 1 in the nation, will play host to Etiwanda in the Southern California Regional final Tuesday. Etiwanda, which fell to the Trailblazers last season in the regional final and last weekend in the CIF-SS Open Division final, beat host La Jolla Country Day 47-42 in the other semifinal Saturday.
The plot at Sierra Canyon on Saturday included Komaki facing Mater Dei coach Kevin Kiernan, who she played for at Troy and later assisted at Mater Dei.
“Alicia is like a daughter to me,” Kiernan, the state’s all-time leader in coaching victories, said earlier this week.
Komaki counted at least six different defenses that Kiernan threw at the Trailblazers. Sierra Canyon finished with its third-lowest output of the season but trailed only once at 3-2 and led 31-11 late in the first half.
Watkins sparked the Trailblazers with a fast start, outscoring Mater Dei (29-4) by herself in the first period with 10 points, including two 3-pointers points and two assists.
“It’s Juju being Juju,” Komaki said. “She’s locked in for games like this.”
Junior forward Mackenly Randolph and speedy junior guard Izela Arenas also finished in double-figures with 13 and 11 points, respectively, for Sierra Canyon.
Elisaldez, Mater Dei’s speedy, 5-foot-5 senior guard bound for Tennessee at Chattanooga, played physical defense against the 6-foot-2 Watkins.
“Caia took the challenge,” said Kiernan, who gave his point guard a hug as she left the court for the final time in her high school career. “She knows she’s small and she knows she has to overachieve out there. So she has to have a great motor. … She has an unbelievable motor.”
The game was physical and intense, and at one point a couple of fans apparently went too far and were escorted from the gym.
Mater Dei got within 11 points late in the third period on a 3-pointer by freshman Kaeli Wynn, who made three shots from beyond the arc to finish with nine points.
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Junior forward Jenessa Cotton finished with 10 points and took three charges, while Addison Deal and Shaena Brew added nine and eight points, respectively.
“I thought we made them a little nervous at the end of the game,” Kiernan said of Sierra Canyon. “It wasn’t a breezy win for them. They had to work for it in the last eight minutes, and that’s something (we) can be proud of.”