Inglewood High basketball Coach Vince Combs likes to call Sentinel forward Harold Miner "a gift." If that's true, then Miner is the gift that keeps on giving.
On Saturday afternoon, the 6-5 junior put the finishing touches on what he called the biggest week of his career to help Inglewood turn back Hawthorne, 72-67, at Leuzinger in a tie-breaker for third place in the Ocean League.
At stake was the league's final berth in the CIF 4-A playoffs, a prize that Miner considered too valuable to let slip away, which almost happened when Hawthorne cut a 20-point third-quarter deficit to three in the final minute.
Miner responded by scoring 12 of his team's last 16 points, including four free throws in the final 24 seconds. He finished with game highs of 35 points and 17 rebounds.
"This is my favorite part of the year--money time," he said. "I don't know how I would have handled it if we had lost."
Miner's performance came on the heels of his 46-point effort Thursday night in a 77-72 win over Ocean League champion Beverly Hills that kept Inglewood's playoff hopes alive.
"This was probably the biggest game of my life. This and the Beverly Hills game," he said. "I came out relaxed and confident, but not overconfident."
Combs, who was a bundle of nerves on the bench, could only breathe a sigh of relief after the game was over.
"This has been a pressure-packed week for us," he said. "Having to play two must-win situations can only help us. We are finally learning how to play team ball."
Inglewood (14-10) will enter the playoffs next week, while Hawthorne ended its season with a 12-10 mark. Both teams had finished with 6-4 league records after splitting their two previous meetings.
If there was a supporting player to Miner's leading role Saturday, it was reserve guard Ray Wilson. The 5-9 sharpshooter, nicknamed "Radar," hit five three-point shots to account for his 15 points. His two three-pointers early in the third quarter gave Inglewood its biggest lead of the game, 49-29.
"We didn't expect that," said Hawthorne Coach Richard Wells. "That and our poor free-throw shooting are what really buried us."
The Cougars made only 13 of 27 foul shots and were 5 of 10 in the fourth quarter.
However, an aggressive man-to-man defense and the play of forward Randy Lavander (17 points) and guard MacArthur Wells (16 points) helped Hawthorne draw within 10 points, 53-43, by the end of the third quarter. The Cougars drew to 68-65 on a free throw by reserve guard Tim Dodson with 28 seconds left.
Dodson rebounded his own miss on the second free throw, but his shot from the key was blocked and rebounded by Miner, who was fouled and hit both ends of a one-and-one with 24 seconds left.
Miner made two more free throws with one second left to set off a jubilant celebration on the Inglewood bench. Even Combs got in the act, waving a towel over his head.
"I just wanted to get to the playoffs," he said. "I wanted it so badly for our seniors."
As for Inglewood's star junior, he was already looking ahead.
"We still have business to take care of," Miner said. "It's not over yet."
Here's a look at the playoff qualifiers from other leagues:
BAY LEAGUE--Rolling Hills (18-6, 8-2) won the title for the second straight season, but a 66-56 loss to Palos Verdes on Thursday could prevent the Titans from being seeded for the CIF 3-A playoffs. Palos Verdes (16-8, 7-3) finished second after Torrance dropped West Torrance into third with a 75-71 upset on Friday. West (17-7, 6-4), once considered the league's best team, enters the playoffs with a two-game losing streak and without center James Severance, who suffered a badly sprained ankle in Tuesday's loss to Palos Verdes.
PIONEER LEAGUE--Leuzinger (18-5, 9-1) completed one of the most dramatic turnarounds in South Bay history by beating Redondo, 70-60, Friday night. The Olympians rebounded from last year's 1-19 season by winning the championship, thus ending Morningside's four-year title streak. Morningside (16-8, 8-2) finished second and El Segundo (12-10, 7-3) was third.
ANGELUS LEAGUE--St. Bernard (18-7, 6-4) finished strongly, beating St. Paul and Bishop Montgomery this week to wrap up third place and the league's final guaranteed CIF 5-A playoff spot. Bishop Amat (24-2, 9-1) won the title to end Mater Dei's longtime hold on the championship. Mater Dei (17-7, 8-2) finished second. Fourth-place St. Paul (15-7, 5-5) has a good chance of gaining an at-large berth in the playoffs.
CAMINO REAL LEAGUE--James Moses transferred from Alemany to Serra two years ago as a sophomore and helped the Cavaliers reach the CIF 5-A finals. Since then, it's been a struggle for Serra and the high-scoring Moses. The Cavaliers were denied a playoff berth for the second straight season Friday, losing an 81-73 showdown to Pius X (9-13, 5-5) for third place. Serra (10-12, 4-6) blew a 21-point second-quarter lead and Moses was held to 26 points, seven below his season average. St. Anthony (22-4, 9-1) won the title, followed by Verbum Dei (12-9, 8-2).