OAKLAND — Were it not for two December losses in a tournament in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Crenshaw High undoubtedly would be ranked higher than No. 10 in the nation by USA Today heading into tonight's state Division I championship game.
On the other hand, were it not for those consecutive losses, and the sizable dose of humility that came with them, the Cougars (24-2) might not have made it to the Oakland Coliseum Arena to defend their title.
"Those two losses made us realize that we are not an unbeatable team," said Cougar guard Stephen Thompson, the team leader with 34 points a game. "It made us more hungry. Before that tournament, we were sitting around and thinking how we are the best team in the world. But it humbled us a lot."
Since invincibility fell by the wayside three months ago, however, the Cougars have won 17 straight and will go after No. 18 against Oakland Bishop O'Dowd in a scheduled 8 p.m. start, the last of six finals today.
Bishop O'Dowd (31-4) won the Northern California title last week, its third in five years. The Dragons, however, appear to be a team without much size or a standout player. Phil Palmer, a 6-foot 4 1/2-inch center, leads the team in scoring with a 12.7-point average, and Matt Meuhlback directs the offense as point guard.
Bishop O'Dowd lost badly to Cleveland in a Southland tournament in December, and Crenshaw beat Cleveland for its third straight City title earlier in the month, 95-79.
The Cougars, however, disregard such comparisons, instead thinking back to December. They don't want to celebrate a second straight California title and third in four years a couple of hours early, as was the case last season, when they took the court to face Logan of Union City with all the modesty of Rowdy Roddy Piper.
"We have to put that out of our minds," Thompson said of the Cleveland factor. "Last year in Oakland, we played a team we never heard of until the week before the game. But the game had to go into overtime before we won. We went into that game a little overconfident, thinking all we have to do is show up and win. That didn't happen."
Still, Crenshaw would have to be considered the favorite. The Cougars have two starters taller than Palmer, 6-6 center Cortney Able and 6-7 forward Ronald Caldwell, and three starters averaging more points, Thompson, Caldwell at 20.2, and forward Dion Brown at 13. The Cougars have a 97.6-point scoring average. Bishop O'Dowd's is 61.
The Crenshaw-Bishop O'Dowd game will be broadcast live by KDAY (1580) and televised by Prime Ticket on a delayed basis at 11 p.m.
Division I Girls--Point Loma (30-1) vs. Sacramento Grant (30-5) 6:15 p.m.
Point Loma, which has all five starters and the top reserves from last season, is shooting for its third straight title. Terri Mann, a 6-2 forward scoring 25 points a game, already holds the career rebounding record for the San Diego Section and is only a junior.
Grant, an at-large entry into the Northern Regionals from the Sac-Joaquin Section, is a quick and very balanced team with five players averaging between 8.1 and 13.3 points a game. Guard Tasha Irby leads the way, and she was also tops in the area in steals.
Division II Boys--Hacienda Heights Wilson (30-3) vs. Aptos (32-1) 4:30 p.m.
In last week's Northern California championship game, Aptos defeated the top-ranked Division II team in the state, Hayward Mt. Eden, as guard Jeff Jones scored 33 points and forward Chris Warmerdam, although only 6-5, had 13 blocked shots.
But the Mariners still do not match up very well with Wilson. They have three players at 6-5, and the top three players off the bench go 6-1, 6-2, 6-2.
Wilson is led by Scott Williams, a 6-10 senior center who is averaging 19 points, 12 rebounds and 4 blocked shots a game.
Division II Girls--Chino (31-1) vs. Novato (34-0) 2:45 p.m.
The experience much of the Chino team got while playing in summer tournaments has paid off. The Cowgirls are the No. 1 Division II team in the state, having lost only to Pasadena Muir. Guards Candida Echeverria and Stephanie Dykstra average 19 and 17.6 points a game, respectively, and forward Jeanine Jones is at 11.
Like Chino, Novato is a balanced team with quickness. Guard Jennifer Lucas leads the Hornets in scoring with 15 points a game.
Division III Boys--Santa Monica Crossroads (23-7) vs. Vanden (26-2) 12:45 p.m.
Like Crossroads, Vanden, from Travis Air Force Base, has four players averaging in double figures, so it could be a high-scoring game. The two Crossroads guards, Keith Davis and Marc Rudolph share the scoring lead at 16.
Division III Girls--Woodlake (24-2) vs. San Andreas Calaveras (24-4) 11 a.m.
Woodlake, from Tulare County, is going for its second straight title after defeating Yucca Valley in the Southern Regional last week.