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Column: Centennial’s sensational finish gets it the No. 1 seeding in regional playoffs

The combined Saturday night attendance for four high school basketball games played at Honda Center was 12,501. Those who stuck around to witness the final seconds of the nightcap were treated to one of the most exciting endings in South Section playoff history.

The scene: Underdog Bellflower St. John Bosco was in position to be the Open Division slayer of defending champion Corona Centennial.

“We had the ball and the last shot of a tie,” said St. John Bosco coach Matt Dunn. “That’s what you dream of getting in.”

With 31 seconds left, the Braves got the ball to second-year guard Elzie Harrington, who had to use a screen at the top of the key to free himself for one last shot. All-American Jared McCain guarded him. The screen didn’t work, so Harrington dribbled to the baseline, where McCain got defensive help from Eric Freeny.

With nowhere to go, Harrington passed the ball towards Brandon McCoy at the free throw line with four seconds remaining. That’s when Aaron McBride turned it around, gaining possession near the half court, using two dribbles and delivering an emphatic dunk as time expired for a stunning 58-56 Centennial win and third straight Open Division championship of the Huskies.

“Whatever you ask, that was a blur,” said Centennial coach Josh Giles. “Regular season, playoffs, that’s the craziest ending ever.”

On Sunday afternoon, the brackets were released for the state playoffs, and Centennial received the No. 1 seed in a five-team Southern California Regional Open Division. At 29-3, the Huskies remain the favorite to reach Golden 1 Center in Sacramento on March 11 to repeat as state champions. They will host the Santa Clarita West Ranch-San Diego Augustine winner on Saturday night. In the other semifinal, St. John Bosco hosts Studio City Harvard-Westlake.

Centennial is on a memorable three-season run in which the Huskies have not lost to a California team since May 28, 2021, when Harvard-Westlake won 70-65 in a playoff game.

The question remains, what does it take to beat Centennial?

“We had them where we wanted to be with Elzie and a ball screen,” Dunn said. “Of course the worst happened. We thought we could (beat) them. I have a group of guys who believe in themselves and are really talented. We came here to win and so it really hurts not to.”

Others want the chance to take on Centennial.

“It’s a second chance,” Harvard-Westlake coach David Rebibo said of the regional playoffs earlier this week. “Were excited. We’ve had a great week of training.”

The Wolverines (30-2) were unable to play for an Open Division championship due to a loss in pool play to St. John Bosco. Now they get a resit on the road instead of at home.

Can any team beat Centennial?

“They have really elite waiting game and really elite bigs and everyone is playing their part,” said Sherman Oaks Notre Dame coach Matt Sargeant. “It sounds simple, but that’s basketball in a nutshell. Really good players who do certain things that complement each other. If Devin Williams and Aaron McBride are locked up, I don’t know if anyone beats them.”

Notre Dame gets help and does not play in the Open Division. The Knights were awarded the number 1 seed in a 16-team Division I field and will receive Fairfax on Tuesday. Chatsworth Sierra Canyon, which has lost six of its last eight games, is seeded No. 3 and will host City Section champion Woodland Hills Taft on Tuesday. It will be a reunion for Taft coach Derrick Taylor and Sierra Canyon coach Andre Chevalier, who used to coach at Reseda Cleveland.

“We got 600 wins, lost a little bit of weight, lost some hair, but hopefully we gained knowledge,” Taylor said.

Corona Centennial players and coaches celebrate after Aaron McBride’s run of time dunk gave the Huskies a 58-56 victory over St. John Bosco in the Open Division final at Honda Center.

(Craig Weston)

The CIF decided that five teams was also the limit for Open Division girls, with No. 1 Sierra Canyon receiving a bye. The Trailblazers will receive the winner of Santa Ana Mater Dei-Newport Beach Sage Hill on Saturday. The other semifinal has Etiwanda on La Jolla Country Day.

As for St. John Bosco, Dunn has a week to make his team forget Saturday’s conclusion. While sitting on the couch during the awards ceremony, Dunn grabbed his face with his hands as if trying to make sense of what had just happened.

He was asked, “What are you going to say to your players?”

“I’m not sure. I’ll tell them I love them and I’m proud of them,” he said.

They may get a rematch with Centennial on March 7 with another win.