It ended with hail fire from a familiar foe, Caleb Foster and Mercy Miller bumping and bruising their way to the rim like nothing could stand in their way.
It ended with valiant efforts to stop the bleeding, but Sherman Oaks Notre Dame simply couldn’t be denied, its student section raucously chanting “0-and-4” as the Knights closed out the fourth quarter of a fourth meeting that left no doubt as to the stronger team.
Chatsworth Sierra Canyon’s season began with promise and ended with disappointment, the Trailblazers trudging off the floor as their San Fernando Valley foes leaped in celebration, Notre Dame chanting “State! State! State!” after an 80-61 win in Tuesday night’s Division I regional final. Every Trailblazers jab was met with a thunderous roundhouse kick, every third-quarter tough finish answered with a Knights three-pointer that sent the crowd at Calabasas High into a frenzy.
Standing off to the side after the game as coach Matt Sargeant proudly cradled the Division I regional title trophy, Duke commit Foster looked down as a fan handed him a sign, slowly unfurling the paper to read “0-4.”
He smiled. An individual journey for the Mouth of Wilson (Va.) Oak Hill preseason transfer was nearly complete. A program’s trek to the top of the mountain, to knocking off Valley rival Sierra Canyon four times in one season, was now one step from completion — a win this weekend in the state final in Sacramento.
“We just got one more, though,” Foster said with a dazed smile. “We just got one more.”
In late November, with the trains running smoothly and no stain of a loss, Sierra Canyon coach Andre Chevalier pulled out the crystal ball and uttered the words that would shape a season.
“We’re going to go as far as Bronny and [Isaiah Elohim] and Ashton [Hardaway] take us,” Chevalier said after a win over Crossroads.
Three leaders, each with his own apparent upside and risk. Elohim, the high-ceiling walking bucket — who had struggled with injury. Hardaway, the sweet-shooting son of Penny Hardaway — whose ability to affect a game largely hinged on his jumper. And James, the undeniable leader poised to truly take the reins — but still finding himself as a player.
And on Tuesday, Hardaway’s shot fell flat, his impact muted. Elohim made a surprise return from a sprained ankle to come off the bench and corkscrew his way to 14 points, but too many of his buckets came too late. James hit a pair of three-pointers but couldn’t find the net when his team needed momentum.
It just wasn’t enough against a Knights team that has come hungry in each matchup with Sierra Canyon this season. Enough to make Sierra Canyon junior Noah Williams laugh when asked earlier in the week about the repeat meetings.
“I was hoping Mater Dei would win,” Williams said, referring to the previous week’s Notre Dame-Mater Dei semifinal matchup, “but I was like, ‘Wow, we got to play them again.’ But we’re ready. I think we’re always getting better. We’re not scared of anybody.”
Through the first quarter Tuesday night, Notre Dame absolutely hounded the Trailblazers on offense, staying in front on drives and making every dribble a personal nightmare. Even as Sierra Canyon went on a run to cut an early deficit to 19-16, Foster put his head down like a rampaging bull, Trailblazer defenders bouncing off him.
Over the summer, at the beginning of the season, Foster said his goal for his final year at Notre Dame was to learn to be a better leader. Flanked by timely buckets from fellow transfer Miller, he paved the way with force Tuesday night.
Bryce Cofield sent home a jam to cut a third-quarter lead to single digits — then Foster came right back with a layup. Elohim drew a foul on a post-up — and Foster came right back with a nifty step-through finish. Elohim tossed in a layup off the glass and screamed in jubilation — and Foster came right back with a top-of-the-key dagger three.
“Just shows that hard work pays off,” Foster said of his journey.
And as one journey continues, another ends. At the start of the fourth quarter, up 10, Foster isolated out top against Sierra Canyon’s Williams, stepping back and burying a tough three. Back down the court, James caught a pass, ripped through and elevated at the arc for an answer.
Off rim. Answer unfulfilled. It was a few-seconds sequence emblematic of the night, James scoring 10 points to Foster’s 28, ending a season-long journey of growth for the prodigal son one step short.
James’ high school career is done. An uncertain future beckons.