The glitzy reputation of the Muir High girls basketball team had taken almost an entire season to build.
The Mustangs were ranked No. 1 in the nation by USA Today, No. 1 in the state by Cal-Hi Sports News of San Jose and No. 1 in the CIF 4-A Division. With a 31-0 record, Muir had developed into the heavy favorite to win the state basketball title.
That is, until the unspeakable happened.
As Tasha Bradley's shot caromed off the rim and bounced away at the final buzzer in Lynwood's 54-52 double-overtime win in the 4-A finals at Cal Poly Pomona last week, the bitter truth was starting to set in: The reputation that had taken so long to build had been shattered in one game.
Muir was hoping to end the frustration of losing in 4-A championship games the last two years to Buena and Compton.
Instead, the Mustangs had to reconcile themselves to being the only girls team in CIF history to lose the championship game three years in a row.
Taking It Hard
Some players were taking it hard.
The reality hit home for one after she watched the Muir boys defeat Simi Valley for the 4-A title at the L. A. Sports Arena the next night.
"One of the girls was sitting next to me at the boys game and after they won she started to cry," said Muir Coach Archie Newton. "I knew what she was crying about."
Newton added that only two of his players attended school Monday. He said most are having difficulty accepting that they will not be playing any more this season.
"It still hurts a lot," Newton said. "We're still in a great deal of pain. It's going to take some time to get over. We worked so hard for it (a championship). Our season just came to a very abrupt end. We didn't expect it to end this way."
The coach said the pain of losing probably will not set in completely until after the state championship game March 22 in Oakland.
As the season developed, it was starting to appear that the Mustangs would be one of the teams playing.
Muir's reputation rose with victories in non-league games against Christ the King of New York and Point Loma of San Diego--which had been the top-ranked teams in the nation until Muir beat them in the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions. The Mustangs' list of victims included defending 4-A champion Compton, 3-A champion Brea-Olinda and 2-A champion Chino.
Muir sailed through the preliminary rounds of the 4-A playoffs, rolling over Bishop Montgomery (83-17), Upland (79-30), Compton (51-44) and Gahr (68-35) to earn a berth in the finals again.
That set the stage for the game against Lynwood, which Muir had defeated twice, 43-34 and 54-38, during the regular season and once in summer league play.
Newton said he had a good feeling about his team's prospects at the start of the game, but that changed rapidly.
"After the game started I was a little shocked at what I was seeing," Newton recalled. "I didn't see the hunger or the kill, if you will, in their faces that I was used to seeing.
"I thought it would come at the beginning of the third quarter, but it didn't. When we finally went up by six points (39-33 at the end of the third quarter), we just didn't take advantage of it."
Made 32 Turnovers
Muir made only 34% of its field goal attempts, hitting just 17 of 50 shots, and committed a season-high 32 turnovers. The team's leading scorer, 6-3 center Pauline Jordan, fouled out late in the fourth quarter, and her twin, 6-2 forward Geannine, fouled out late in the second overtime.
The team's problems, Newton said, were partly attributable to the fact that Lynwood's much shorter players used a fierce man-to-man defense.
"Teams have not used the man-to-man on us because of our size," Newton said. "But when they went to it, we just seemed to stand around. They were very quick and they took advantage of it. They played a very smart game."
Despite his early optimism, Newton said he was a bit concerned after Lynwood upset undefeated Buena (48-46) in the semifinals. He said his team was looking forward to a match-up against Buena, which was ranked No. 3 in the nation by USA Today, in a battle of unbeaten national powers.
"I was concerned that our intensity wouldn't be there because we beat them three times before," he said. "I think everyone was kind of up for us playing Buena, and when they lost it was kind of a letdown."
Fine Lynwood Strategy
Newton said Lynwood Coach Van Girard used a fine psychological strategy by saying that his team had no chance of winning and was just happy to be playing in the finals. Only Newton knew that wasn't true.
"If I had it to do over again, knowing what I know now, I would reach into my motivation bag and pull out something special. But you assume the motivation is there for a championship game. I was confident and the team was very confident."
Unfortunately for the Mustangs, there are no second chances. The dream of winning a state title has turned into a nightmare.
Newton says his chief concern now is how the team's third straight loss in a CIF title game will affect the team and the program at Muir.
"I'm concerned about how all of this is going to affect me and the program," he said. "Although the first two years we were underdogs, there's no question we were favored to win this year.
"It says something just to be there. I would hope the public would look at that and all the good teams we beat to get there."
For the moment, though, Newton and his players can be excused if they are thinking about the one game they didn't win this season.