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March 06, 1987|STEVE ELLING

Both teams come from the same valley, the same league, the same general neighborhood, and the last defeat for each was at the hands of the other.

When Van Nuys Birmingham (22-2) and Granada Hills (19-4) play tonight at 7:30 in the City Section 3-A final at the Sports Arena, it's anyone's guess who will win.

"I wouldn't touch it," said first-year Birmingham Coach Jeff Halpern, whose team won the Northwest Valley League with a record of 9-1 and has won 21 of its last 22 games. "I mean, I'm from Birmingham and I think we have a real good chance, but I sure wouldn't go out and bet the house on it."

Halpern's hesitation seems appropriate. Granada Hills and Birmingham are evenly matched.

Granada Hills, which finished 8-2 in league and has won nine straight games, has 6-9 Gary Gray, an All-City senior who averaged 27 points and 13 rebounds in the regular season. Birmingham has 6-6 senior forward Keith Owens, who averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds.

In recent games, however, both teams have benefited from a strong bench. Last week, in the Highlanders' two playoff wins, Granada Hills senior forward Sam Puathasnanon (6-5) scored 55 points, well above his season average of 11 points a game.

Birmingham's Ennerea Maxwell was so dominating in the late season that he shared league MVP honors with Gray. Maxwell, a 6-6 senior forward, scored a career-high 32 points and sank the winning free throws with 12 seconds left in Friday's 58-56 semifinal win over Los Angeles. Maxwell averaged 17 points and 11 rebounds in the regular season.

"I figure it'll be pretty close," Halpern said. "They have Gray, and we have two big guys up front. We fought to a draw the two times we played. We know each other, and we don't really plan to do anything differently."

In the first regular-season game, Birmingham won, 83-78. Three weeks later, Granada Hills snapped Birmingham's 17-game winning streak, 74-68. Birmingham's only other loss was in its second game of the season, 58-55, to Glendale.

Birmingham will need to count on a pair of 6-0 senior guards, Charles Johnson and Adam Zuckerman, who each averaged 10 points a game. Senior point guard Terrell Smith averaged 13 points for Granada Hills.

Granada Hills last won the City title in 1976. Birmingham hasn't won since 1961.

"When you get to this point, you can never tell what will happen," Halpern said. "It's all such an unknown, such a different environment at the Sports Arena, in the finals."

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