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BOYS' BASKETBALL / STATE DIVISION I FINALS : Last Stop on the Crenshaw Express : The Cougars' quest, which began with a December tournament in Alaska, brought them back through the city and ended in Oakland.

March 21, 1993|SEAN WATERS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Crenshaw High Coach Willie West advised his boys' basketball team last week about how to pack for their weekend trip to the state basketball championship in Oakland.

The players shrugged. They have had their bags packed for months.

"We've been planning this trip since the beginning of the season," forward Kristaan Johnson said. "It has been our goal--to qualify for the state finals and bring home the trophy."

Crenshaw had its eyes set on the trip when it transferred in nine players at the start of the season. Their quest, which began in Anchorage with the Great Alaska High School Classic in December, brought them back through the city and ended in Oakland.

On Saturday, the Cougars (25-2), ranked 23rd in the nation last week by USA Today, played fifth-ranked Carmichael Jesuit (35-1) in the State Division I final at the Oakland Coliseum Arena. (See Sports in Section C for results).

Johnson, whose father, Marques, starred at Crenshaw before going on to greater fame at UCLA and in the NBA, is one of four newcomers to start for the Cougars. The 6-foot-5 forward made a desperation finger roll as time expired to give Crenshaw a 63-61 victory over Santa Ana Mater Dei in last week's Division I Southern California Regional.

"It was a big shot, but I can't sit on my laurels," Johnson said.

The Cougars went 4-0 in playoff games on their way to the state final, but were three-point underdogs to Jesuit, according to the Cal-Hi Sports magazine.

Jesuit, the state's top-ranked team, defeated De La Salle of Concord, 45-37, to become the Northern California regional winner. They are led by 6-4 forward Isaac Fontaine and 6-7 Josh King. Fontaine, who averages 21.1 points, signed early to play for Washington State and King (16 points) has signed with Cal State Fullerton.

"This kid Fontaine is a top prospect," said West, whose advance scouting report consisted of a crumpled piece of paper. "He's sort of a swing person. Then they got some 6-7 or something kid (King) that can shoot threes."

Unlike Crenshaw's past state qualifiers, this year's Cougars do not have a dominating scorer such as John Williams, now a Los Angeles Clipper forward, or Steve Thompson. Instead, they rotate at least nine players who each can step forward and score. Their leading scorers are Johnson and 6-6 forward Tremaine Fowlkes, who each average 20.3 points.

"We don't have a takeover type of scorer," West said. "We have a good 'go-to' guy in Johnson. We don't have a John Williams. John would take the ball and do whatever he wanted to do."

Actually, the lack of a dominating player has worked in Crenshaw's favor. Mater Dei, for example, discovered that it couldn't focus its defensive efforts on just one player. Although Fowlkes and Johnson were in foul trouble and Reggie McFerren struggled in the Southern California Regional game, the Cougars stayed competitive with key baskets by senior guards Maurice Robinson and Rico Laurie.

Robinson and Laurie began their careers at Westchester before transferring to Crenshaw. Robinson was a sixth-man on Westchester's two championship teams. Both players changed positions once they moved to Crenshaw--Robinson moved from shooting to point guard, while Laurie went from small forward to playing either of the guard positions.

"Rico has really stepped up in the last two playoff games," West said. "Robinson has become a lot more confident handling the ball."

Said Robinson: "It was a gutsy decision to move me to point guard. I wasn't learning much at Westchester. Now I feel I can play two positions when I get to college."

While Robinson was happy to transfer, McFerren did not want to leave Serra of Gardena. The Cavaliers are playing Palma of Salinas in the State Division IV final.

"I wanted to stay at Serra, but my parents wanted me to transfer," McFerren said. "We argued about it but the parents overruled the child. I'm happy now because Crenshaw has a real good program."

Despite the increasing importance of each playoff game, West has not hesitated to use his underclassmen. Sophomore Robert Parker has been a key reserve defensively, guarding the opponents' top scorers during the closing minutes and sophomore Ronnie Arch made some clutch baskets in the regionals.

"Parker plays with a lot of intensity," West said. "Everyone gets tired. He has played some good defense while our regulars rest."

Crenshaw's main weakness, West said, is that the team has only been together for one year. Junior center Leon Watson is the only returning player from last year's team.

"It's hard to beat teams that have been together for two or three years," West said. "None of these kids really played together before. No one knew their role. They have been slowly learning the system and getting better with each game."

No matter the outcome of the state final, the Cougars expect to be back next year. Only one starter--Robinson--and three of their top 12 reserves are seniors.

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