February 25, 2024

Forget March Madness. The eight-team bracket for the Southern Section Open Division boys’ basketball playoffs released on Sunday indicates it’s going to be a Fabulous February.

Any team, from No. 1 seed Harvard-Westlake through No. 8 Corona Centennial, can win on a given night. There is that much parity this season. Officials could have easily gone to a 12-team bracket. There’s that many quality teams.

On coaching alone, it’s a fabulous Open Division.

Gary McKnight of Santa Ana Mater Dei is the winningest coach in California history. David Rebibo has guided Harvard-Westlake to five straight Mission League titles. Matt Dunn won a state title at Damien before building a powerhouse at St. John Bosco.

Andre Chevalier has created buzz, excitement and won three Southern Section titles at Sierra Canyon. Stephen Singleton of Eastvale Roosevelt won a state title at Dominguez and ended Corona Centennial’s reign as Big VIII League champions on Friday. Josh Giles of Centennial has guided the Huskies to three straight Open Division titles. JSerra coach Keith Wilkinson is a former USC player who has the Lions making their first Open Division appearance. Donte Archie is one of the bright young coaches having led St. Pius X-St. Matthias to its first Open Division appearance.

There’s going to be lots of twists and turns even though the higher seeds get to host throughout the two-week tournament that begins Friday and ends on Feb. 23 or 24 at Cal Baptist. Remember last season St. John Bosco upset Harvard-Westlake on the road to win its bracket, so forget those home-court advantages. Pool A has fantastic openers: No. 8 Centennial at No. 1 Harvard-Westlake and No. 5 Sierra Canyon at No. 4 St. John Bosco. Pool B has No. 7 JSerra at No. 2 Roosevelt and No. 6 St. Pius X-St. Matthias at No. 3 Mater Dei.

Harvard-Westlake (25-3) is the defending state Open Division champion but never made it to the Southern Section final. This time, the Wolverines understand how lower seeds can rise up and win. They had to overcome a bad week of losing consecutive games to Notre Dame and Sierra Canyon to win the Mission League.

“Hunting is a lot easier than being hunted,” Rebibo said. “Sometimes you need to refocus and reset, and I thought we did.”

Said guard Trent Perry: “Losing is humbling. It honestly set us back a little bit, but we just go through adversity and refocus as a group.”

Division 1 also has several quality teams, led by top-seeded Sherman Oaks Notre Dame (24-3), which is outraged it was not chosen for the Open Division and has to start the Division 1 playoffs with a road game at Crean Lutheran. The Knights, led by high-scoring Mercy Miller, won their first 24 games before losing their final three games to Sierra Canyon, Bishop Gorman and Harvard-Westlake.

Crespi, coming off its surprising week of knocking off Sierra Canyon in the Mission League tournament, is the No. 1 seed in 2AA.

The girls’ Open Division field has all the makings of a finals matchup in three weeks between No. 1 Sierra Canyon (27-1) and No. 2 Etiwanda (25-3). They’ve stayed away from playing each other all season. Last season, Sierra Canyon won the Southern Section Open Division title but lost to Etiwanda in the Southern California Regional final. There’s no reason they won’t meet again twice. The coaches even know to save a few plays for a potential rematch.

Each team has a McDonald’s All-American in Mackenly Randolph for Sierra Canyon and Kennedy Smith for Etiwanda. Mater Dei (22-6), Sage Hill (24-2) and Ontario Christian (25-3), led by freshman sensation Kaleena Smith (35.3 scoring average), all have aspirations of upsetting the top two. That would be a monumental development if it happens.

Ontario Christian freshman basketball star Kaleena Smith poses for a photo holding a basketball in her right hand.

Ontario Christian freshman basketball star Kaleena Smith has already set the school scoring record and has her sights set on the career mark.

(Steve Galluzzo / Los Angeles Times)

Smith alone will bring out fans to see what all the fuss is about. She’s a scoring machine, from sinking three-pointers to driving to the basket.

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