Matthew Cunningham
Junior Matthew Cunningham said Bishop Diego’s players formed a tight bond this season. (Gary Kim / Noozhawk photo)

The Bishop Diego boys basketball team that will be playing Arrowhead Christian Academy on Saturday for the CIF-SS 5AA Division championship has grown up fast.

A year ago, the Cardinals team that took the court was more like a frosh-soph team. And it took some lumps playing a varsity schedule that included several higher division programs. Losses by 20 or more points were common. The team went 7-17 and was outscored by more than 350 points.

As he entered his second year with the group, coach James Coronado asked the players during the summer: “How good do you want to be?”

When they responded, “Good,” Coronado thought: “Being young, I don’t think they fully understood what that meant.”

So began Bishop’s climb at becoming a good basketball team.

The Cardinals (21-11) and Arrowhead Christian (16-12) play at 4 p.m. at Colony High in Ontario.

At 2 p.m., the Bishop Diego girls (23-8) face Ganesha (23-3) in the 5A championship game. Ganesha is the No. 1 seed, led by 6-foot-3 Heavenly Greer, a transfer from Arizona who is considered one of top prep players in the country. Bishop Diego is the No. 2 seed.

Connor Streett

Connor Streett has developed into a solid presence in the paint for the Cardinals. (Gary Kim / Noozhawk photo)

This marks the first time since 1991 in Santa Barbara County that the same school has its boys and girls basketball teams playing for CIF titles in the same season. St. Joseph was the last school to accomplish the feat.

The last time the Bishop Diego girls were a CIF final was in 2015, when they won the title. The Cardinals will face a Ganesha team that has dominated its four opponents in the playoffs, allowing an average of 21 points per game and winning by an average of 45 points.  The Giants, who hadn’t been to the playoffs the last three seasons, won their semifinal game 61-17 over Vista Del Lago.

In its effort to become a better team,  Bishop Diego boys suffered some one-sided losses against San Luis Obispo and Crean Lutheran while playing shorthanded in the Santa Barbara High Holiday Classic. But it was a heartbreaking 47-46 defeat at Santa Clara in their Tri-Valley League opener that turned the season around, according to Coronado.

“We lost by one on a bank-shot three at Santa Clara in overtime, and that was with everybody back,” said the coach, referring to transfers Tyler Williams and Brian Lopez becoming eligible.

Coronado felt a winning mentality had yet to be fully developed on the team.

“I told them, ‘You weren’t ready to win yet. Even though San Luis Obispo, and Crean Luthern beat us up, the biggest thing for me was: ’You guys got to compete. No matter what the score is, you got to play hard.’ And I didn’t think we did that. We learned to do that with Santa Clara, but it was too little too late.

“I think that got the ball rolling because they were like: ’Yeah, you’re right. We have to play harder.’”

Since that loss, the Cardinals won 12 of their next 14, including the rematch with Santa Clara, 58-47. The only two losses came against league champion, and 3A Division team, St. Bonaventure.

“This season is completely different,” said junior Matthew Cunningham, the team’s leading scorer with a 14-point average. “We’re more mature and we got a couple of transfers (Williams from Dos Pueblos and Lopez from San Marcos), and we’re just bonding as a team better. 

“We bonded all season and it just feels good.”

The Cardinals will be facing an Arrowhead Christian team that also has turned its program around.

First-year coach Lance Evbuomwan has the Eagles playing with confidence. They scored in the 90s in two playoff wins and won with tough defense in beating top-seeded Valley Torah, 60-45, in the semifinals.

Arrowhead Christian has a solid front line led by 6-foot-5 senior David Howerzyl and a talented point guard in senior 5-9 Gabriel Torrez.

Both schools will be looking to win their first CIF basketball title.

— Noozhawk sports editor Barry Punzal can be reached at Follow Noozhawk Sports on Twitter: @NoozhawkSports. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.