Back in December, long before most coaches had any thoughts on the march in March, otherwise known as the stretch run to a Southern Section title, Serra's George McDaniel would have been happy just to get two good quarters in the same game from his team.
The Cavaliers were winning often enough and getting plenty of scoring from senior Keith Malone and sophomore James Moses, a transfer from Alemany, but they weren't making their coach happy, and he had no desire to see how low they could go.
"With Moses and the others coming along, this team can be equally as good as any team in the state of California," McDaniel said at the time. "But we're too inconsistent right now. We will play real well for about 20 seconds at a time, but I'm holding on for eight minutes of solid basketball each quarter. When we get to that point, we will be able to play with anyone."
McDaniel, in his third season of coaching at the Gardena school, was right.
Tonight, Serra (23-4), a team that reached the semifinals last season but got back only one starter for 1985-86, will play No. 1 Santa Ana Mater Dei (28-0) in the Sports Arena at 8:45 for the Southern Section 5-A championship and a spot in the Southern California Regionals. It's the first time in the 36-year history of the school that the Cavalier basketball team has made it to a title game.
"I never would have thought it," McDaniel said. "But something seemed to click as we got closer to the playoffs. I couldn't put my finger on it.
"We became a different team. We started getting good play from No. 22 (sophomore center Terry Newman) and 44 (junior forward Derrick Gouthier) in the middle of the court and then everything started going our way.
"The offense is playing very well and emotionally things are going very well. There's good movement and we're always passing to the open man. It's all good."
So now the question is, how high can they go?
Malone, the most frequent target of McDaniel's December consistency complaints, is now a team leader in attitude and scoring, with an average of 26.4 points a game. Moses, a very athletic 6-6, 175-pounder, is close behind at 24.5 and the improved Newman is at 10.1. Guards Darvin Jackson and Brian Tate average six assists each and combine for 13 points a game.
Mater Dei has won 57 straight games, which constitutes the longest winning streak in the state, and is making its fourth straight appearance in a championship game. Stuart Thomas, who has signed with Stanford, leads the team in scoring with a 27-point average and in rebounding with nine a game, but 6-10 junior center LeRon Ellis has become the real force inside for the Monarchs. He is the son of former NBA player Leroy Ellis.
Coached by Gary McKnight, whose record is 114-5 in his four years at the school, the Monarchs simply will not beat themselves with turnovers or many missed defensive assignments. That's not to say they can't be beaten, as Serra is out to prove.