Into the lineup of amazing but true Southern California Regional basketball finals steps Saturday night's Manual Arts-Crenshaw game. For excitement and bizarre turns of events it ranks with Santa Ana Mater Dei-Fairfax last season and Crenshaw-Mater Dei in 1986.
This game, to decide the Division I representative to the state final next Saturday in Oakland, had it all:
--John Staggers, in a mild shooting slump for two games, making a clutch three-point shot from the top of the key with 23 seconds left in regulation to tie it, 82-82. Manual Arts then getting a chance to win the game with two seconds left when Crenshaw inadvertently called a timeout it did not have, only to have Chris Small miss both technical-foul free throws.
--Manual Arts staying in man-to-man--no, face-to-face--defense for practically the entire game and then shutting out a Crenshaw team--that had averaged 99.6 points in winning its first 28 games--in the three-minute overtime period.
--Manual Arts winning, 89-82, after losing to Crenshaw twice this season.
The most recent meeting was last Friday in the City 4-A title game. Crenshaw won by 16, and Manual Arts Coach Reggie Morris thought the season was over. Two days later, he was surprised to learn that the Toilers had received an at-large bid to the Reebok state tournament.
Thus, the most amazing aspect of Saturday's game, before a crowd of only 7,254, was that it sent a team to the state final that had, by its own admission, been left for dead a week earlier.
"It really has been pride," Morris said after the game. "We called on the ghosts of Manual Arts past because we were dead last week.
"What was going against them and what was going for us was the law of averages. We're a good team. Too good to lose to the same team three times.
"We were very determined. What we wanted to do tonight is play the Crenshaw human being instead of the Crenshaw mystique. I really believe that the first two times we played, we played the mystique."
Kind of an emotional high, Reggie?
"It's kind of a relief," he replied. "That monkey is off our backs to beat them. We must be the most successful team against Crenshaw in the past 10 years, and recently even we didn't have much success against them. It was our turn.
"We had been knocking on the door so many times and been forced to settle for something. Small, (Wayne) Williams and (Andre) Bouvay have all been on varsity three years. We didn't have anything to our name with them except Marine League titles."
There is no doubt that Manual Arts, which will meet Northern California champion Bishop O'Dowd of Oakland Saturday at the Oakland Coliseum Arena, earned the trip. The Toilers are 26-3, losing only to Crenshaw and Cleveland of Reseda, and, in succession in the Southern California Regional, knockingoff Southern Section 5-A runner-up Bishop Amat of La Puente, Southern Section 4-A champion Simi Valley on the road and the City 4-A champion.
A more impressive trifecta can't be found.
"They played a little bit more intense, and longer than we did," said Crenshaw Coach Willie West, whose Cougars were looking for their third berth in the state title game in four years. "We beat them twice, which worried me. Our guys thought we could beat them without trying so much. . . . I sensed the fact that our guys didn't play hard at points."
Williams finished with 30 points, hitting 11 of 19 shots from the field and 7 of 8 from the free-throw line, to set the single-game scoring record for a Southern California Regional final. Small, who scored 30 in the losing effort in the City championship game, added 22 and tied the record for most free throws made, 8.
Staggers, who scored just 7 points in Crenshaw's semifinal win over Hoover of Fresno, came off the bench to lead the Cougars with 29 and 13 rebounds. Cornelius Holden had 13 points and 11 rebounds.
As for any notion that Manual Arts doesn't belong in the state title game because Crenshaw proved all along it was the best team in the City, there is a five-year-old precedent, and the coincidences are worth noting.
In 1983, Banning beat Crenshaw for the City championship, but the Cougars, led by junior John Williams, came back to win the regional, though not against Banning.
The date: March 12.
The epilogue: Crenshaw won the state title.