CARSON — If nothing else, Los Angeles Crenshaw showed it can win a close game.
After winning four City Section playoff games by an average margin of 33.3 points, Crenshaw was finally challenged Thursday night in the semifinals of the Southern California Division I boys' basketball playoffs at Cal State Dominguez Hills.
The Cougars responded by making seven of 10 free throws in the final quarter to hold off fast-charging Huntington Beach, 66-61, in a battle of contrasting teams and playing styles.
Crenshaw (26-2) advances to the Southern California finals Saturday at the Sports Arena, where it will meet top-seeded Mater Dei (33-1).
Forward Kris Johnson made four free throws in the final 36 seconds to clinch the victory for Crenshaw and then talked about the long anticipated showdown with Mater Dei.
"We've been looking forward to playing Mater Dei all season," Johnson said. "This is exactly the position we want to be in, playing Mater Dei in the regional final."
Crenshaw has split two games with Mater Dei in past regional final play, but the Cougars almost missed this year's reunion with the Monarchs.
Huntington Beach (29-5) appeared to be heading for an upset after forward Matt Ambrose scored a layup with 1 minute 5 seconds remaining to give the Oilers a 61-60 lead. Point guard Bryan Chang drove the lane, attracted two defenders and then shoveled a pass to Ambrose.
Crenshaw responded with two free throws by guard Maurice Robinson 14 seconds later to regain the lead and then went into its patented full-court press. What followed was the biggest play of the game.
The Cougars had Chang trapped in the backcourt, but he managed to fire a long pass to Ambrose and center Tony Gonzalez, who were wide open under the basket. The two scrambled for the off-target pass and collided.
The ball squirted free and Chang managed to gain control. He missed an off-balance layup with 38 seconds remaining and then it was all downhill for Huntington Beach.
Afterward, Huntington Beach Coach Roy Miller was replaying the game's most critical play.
"It was the difference of being up by a point with 30 seconds left or having to foul and try to get back into the game," Miller said. "It was a crash, deflection and then another deflection. Unfortunately, we missed the shot and then had to pressure them and gamble by fouling them. They made the big free throws."
Ambrose later said he was unaware that Gonzalez was right behind him when the pass came down court.
"I'll be replaying that pass over and over for a while," he said. "We made a great run at them, but we couldn't get a break in the end."
Chang was the key player in Huntington Beach's comeback in the final quarter. Crenshaw held a 60-53 lead with 2:44 remaining when Chang got hot. He hit two consecutive three-point shots and made a steal and, suddenly, the Oilers were in the ballgame, 60-59, with 1:37 left to play.
Huntington Beach utilized a press of its own that forced six turnovers in the last quarter, exploiting Crenshaw's biggest weakness--ballhandling.
Asked later why the Oilers didn't press earlier, Miller said. "It was a matter of depth. We've only got six players. We had to save the press until we needed it."
Miller pointed to the start of the second half, when both teams went scoreless for three minutes, as the turning point in the game.
Johnson, one of seven transfers on Crenshaw's team, was the top scorer in the game with 28 points. He had 20 points in the first half.
Gonzalez led Huntington Beach with 22 points and 10 rebounds, but managed only four points in the second half.