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Verbum Has Its Day in Winning State Title Game : The Watts school caps a sometimes-difficult year with its first championship after opponent misses a heart-stopping final free throw attempt.

March 26, 1995|CHARLES SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With Verbum Dei clinging to a one-point lead and the State Division IV title on the line, there squatted Mike Kearney with his hands folded, drooped between his legs.

Never breaking a sweat, never batting an eye, the Eagles' head coach stoically watched as San Bruno Capuchino guard Devoir Funches shot the front end of a one-and-one.

Verbum Dei's first-ever state championship and a 26-5 season spun through the air with all eyes inside the Oakland Coliseum Arena watching.

The free throw bounced off the rim, a mad scramble ensued and two seconds became an eternity.

But as the buzzer sounded not even Father Time could keep Kearney from his appointment with history.

"It felt good to finally get here and win," said Kearney after the 60-59 victory. "It's been a long season and this is the best way to end it."

Under Kearney, the Eagles have won two Southern Section IV-A titles in five championship appearances and one regional championship in six years. In the last three years, Verbum Dei is 74-14.

"We've gone through some things on and off the court, but somehow we managed to pull it together," Kearney said. "I never thought this would be the result."

It all began in the preseason.

The speed and athleticism was there for Kearney to employ the vaunted Verbum Dei press but there was a seemingly important element missing from the team.

"We didn't have a go-to guy," Kearney said. "I hoped someone would step up during the season."

Last year, the "money man" role was shared by Andre Miller and Jamal Cobbs.

Miller, who will play for the University of Utah in the fall, was the best one-on-one player in the area last season.

The 6-foot-2 guard averaged 23 points, seven rebounds and four assists in being named Southern Section Division IV Player of the Year and to the City Times All-Star first team.

Miller's back-court mate Cobbs, who played on this year's Ventura State Community College championship team, was named to the City Times second team averaging 18 points and eight assists.

Often, the other Verbum Dei players on the court found themselves standing, watching Miller and Cobbs' offensive forays.

"Last year, we had a two-man team with Jamal and Andre," said 6-7 forward Andre Larry. "This year, we have more players that can play."

That is the major difference between last year's 26-3 team, which lost in the regional final to San Diego Lincoln, and this year's championship team.

"This team is deeper than last year's," Kearney said. "I go about 14 deep. Everyone has started at least once. . . . We wore a lot of teams out with our depth."

Miller and Cobbs accounted for 55 points per game for the Eagles in 1994. Larry, Andre Smith and Deon Williams averaged 12 points apiece this season. Seven other players averaged between eight and 12 points.

"This team doesn't have the superstar," said 6-5 sophomore forward Phillip Blackmon. "The chemistry is a lot better (because) we don't watch two people."

In addition to depth, Verbum Dei also had a good mixture of size, which allowed Kearney to be very flexible with his lineup.

"This team is spread out and more balanced," Kearney said. "I'm able to rotate big guys, which I couldn't do last year."

With the departure of Smith and Cobbs--excellent outside shooters--Verbum Dei became less of a perimeter team and more of a post-up team.

This change in offense would require the talents of Blackmon, Larry and Smith.

"My role is to rebound, play strong underneath and give the team a presence in the post," Blackmon said.

Although Smith, 6-4, can play inside, most of his moves begin outside the free-throw line.

A left-hander with intermediate shooting range, Smith is the team's best finisher.

"I try to dunk everything I can and give the team a lift," Smith said.

It was also Williams' job to provide a spark when the team performed poorly.

"Deon gave the team a since of confidence," Kearney said. "He can get a lot of points in a hurry because he is very quick. He also gets excellent penetration and gets easy shots for himself and others."

It was a particularly sweet season for senior guard Ivory Burris, who sat out last season due to academic ineligibility.

"Ivory is a really hard worker who plays great defense," Kearney said. "It turned out to be a nice year for him."

Many teams travel a rocky road to the championship and Verbum Dei's path was no different.

Verbum Dei suffered back-to-back losses to Compton Dominguez and Chadwick in early January, after which Kearney called a team meeting.

"The team didn't respond to the challenge and appeared to be playing selfishly," Kearney said. "Some players were more concerned about individual numbers than team success. I told them that we are like a fist and that the five players have to come together in order for us to be successful."

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