Caleb Foster and Dusty Stromer walked out from the Pauley Pavilion tunnel side-by-side a couple of hours before tipoff, taking a moment to gaze out at the Bruin-blue swath of empty seats that would soon be full with thousands. They smiled. Their eyes widened.
It was fitting. Four years ago, Stromer entered a Sherman Oaks Notre Dame program gutted by the transfer of star Ziaire Williams to Sierra Canyon, hope waning after a decade of mediocrity. But coach Matt Sargeant and his golden-haired freshman had a vision of building a program that could play with the best. That could attract talent. And in came Foster and Mercy Miller from Oak Hill Academy in Virginia before the season, forming a three-headed offensive monster with Stromer that promised to take the program to new heights.
And the grandest opportunity loomed Friday night: an ESPN-streamed showcase at Pauley Pavilion against none other than Chatsworth Sierra Canyon, the program that had drawn Williams all those years ago.
“Now we’re here,” Sargeant said. “Now it’s time to win.”
And with seconds ticking away and Sierra Canyon (19-5) mounting a furious fourth-quarter surge, it wasn’t Stromer or Foster who delivered the final blow in a 66-62 win — but freshman Zach White, who drove and elevated for a mid-range jumper to seal the statement win Notre Dame has been craving all season.
As White climbed down from the interview podium in Pauley’s media room postgame, Stromer called out.
“Good shot, boy,” the senior drawled. “That was really crazy.”
Yes. Crazy. Crazy in the night — which started with Notre Dame (18-8) hitting threes, saw Sierra Canyon use every last ounce of heart to cut a fourth-quarter lead to six and four and two, and ended in a freshman nailing a go-ahead jumper. Crazy in the environment where the crowd of 7,846 that packed the lower section at Pauley Pavilion swell with every back-and-forth make.
And crazy for Sargeant, who remembered holding team lunches every Tuesday with Stromer for four years, going over the legendary John Wooden’s “Pyramid of Success.”
“To play like this, in the very gym John Wooden built … it’s just, it’s the kind of stuff you write books about,” Sargeant said postgame.
Sierra Canyon seemed finished by the third quarter, when Stromer scored 11 of his 22 points and Trailblazers junior top scorer Isaiah Elohim exited with an injured ankle. He finished the night on the bench, the worst imaginable sight for the Trailblazers, who were already missing senior leader Bronny James to a knee injury for the fourth straight game and junior Justin Pippen to back spasms.
But in a gritty performance, they answered the Knights at every fourth-quarter turn. And with time ticking under a minute, junior Noah Williams spun for a third-quarter left-handed layup to cut Notre Dame’s lead to two points with less than a minute left. But White sealed it with his jumper and delivered the statement Notre Dame was looking for.
“This one right here was a big test,” Stromer said.
The win gives Notre Dame the No. 2 seed behind Harvard-Westlake in the end-of-season Mission League tournament next week. Sierra Canyon earned the third seed, meaning it will play the winner of No. 8 Alemany and No. 5 Loyola’s game Monday, setting up a potential rematch with Notre Dame on Wednesday in its home gym in Sherman Oaks.