Magnolia has blossomed into contender

It was the win against nationally touted heavyweight Long Beach-Poly in December that earned the Sacred Heart Cathedral girls’ basketball team the No. 1 ranking in the country.

Then there were victories over longtime regional rivals (Mitty and St. Ignatius) and traditional NorCal powers (St. Mary’s of Stockton) to bring the Irish (32-0) to the precipice of their third straight state title.

But now, as Sacred Heart takes the floor for today’s 1 p.m. Division III championship game at Arco Arena, it will face a newcomer to the party. Southern California champion Magnolia of Anaheim (27-6) is making its first appearance in the state title game and had never won a section playoff game until four years ago.

The Sentinels are led by a core of seniors who have turned the program around. Arizona-bound guard Jhakia McDonald and fellow college signees P.J. Hanson (Point Loma Nazarene) and Brittany Pennell (Texas Christian) have won 88 games in their four years at Magnolia, following a two-season stretch in which the team went 7-39. The Sentinels have won four Orange League titles in a row.

“We knew our priority was going to be to change the school around,” McDonald told the Orange County Register this week. “This would be something great for basketball. We knew we could do it. We just had to work hard. We liked the challenge.”

McDonald scored 19 points in Magnolia’s 40-39 win over Muir of Pasadena in the SoCal championship game, as the Sentinels avenged a 54-51 double-overtime loss to the Mustangs earlier this season. The 5-foot-6 guard averages 12.8 points per game, leading a balanced attack in which all five starters average at least 7.0 points.

Like the Irish, Magnolia earns a lot of its success on the defensive end. The Sentinels allow 36.4 points per game while Sacred Heart permits a shade over 40.

melliser@examiner.com

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