After colliding violently with teammate Tisa Rush in the opening minute of the second half, Kennedy High's April Ham lay motionless on the court. To the Sports Arena crowd, it appeared her season was over.
On-the-job injuries aren't unusual for Ham, the Golden Cougars' designated blue-collar worker, and she wasn't about to take the rest of the night off.
Later her teammates were thankful she didn't. Ham scored four of Kennedy's last six points, all on free throws, as the Golden Cougars hung on to defeat Crenshaw, 47-42, for their second consecutive City Section 4-A girls basketball championship.
For Ham, a 5-7 junior, Friday's collision was mild compared to one she suffered earlier in the week. Ham was in an auto accident Wednesday and her neck has been stiff ever since. She was unable to practice Thursday but never considered missing the final.
"Wild horses wouldn't have kept me from playing," said Ham, who scored six points. "I was afraid to go to the doctor because I thought he'd put a neck brace on me and keep me out. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I'll never forget."
Maybe so, but for Kennedy Coach Craig Raub winning championships is becoming a habit. In addition to last season, the Golden Cougars won the title in 1981-82. But Friday, Raub said the third time around is the sweetest.
"The thing I enjoy most about this one is that we had to replace a lot of people," Raub said. "We had a girl at center that had never played basketball before and our point guard had never played varsity."
Maura Bowden was Kennedy's new center and Yolanda Lewis was the point guard. Although Kennedy lost last season's City 4-A Player of the Year, Stacy Parson, to graduation, Diane DeCree proved to be enough to build a team around. DeCree was limited to nine points but had a game-high 25 rebounds.
Kennedy's change in personnel forced the Golden Cougars to alter their run-and-gun style, but against Crenshaw they needed only to shoot free throws.
The Golden Cougars made 19 of 33 free throws, while Crenshaw was only 2 of 6. An outside jumper by Lewis with 10 seconds left was Kennedy's only field goal in the final nine minutes.
"They beat us at the free throw line," Crenshaw co-Coach Major Dennis said. "They made their free throws down the stretch and that's what it's all about."
None were more important than Ham's.
Ham made four free throws in a 20-second span to give Kennedy a 45-38 lead--its biggest of the game--with 3 1/2 minutes left.
Crenshaw cut the lead to 45-42 with 2 1/2 minutes left but was unable to score the rest of the way.
Kennedy (22-3) closed the season with 15 straight wins and ran its playoff-game winning streak to eight. Crenshaw, which lost to Kennedy by 16 at the start of the season, finished 17-5.
"In a way it wasn't as hard this time, but it was more physical," Rush said. "The officials let us play kind of rough."
Rush, who scored 33 points against Crenshaw earlier, led Kennedy with 15. Lewis added 11.
Kamela Mallory led Crenshaw with 12 points, but made only 5 of 20 shots. Melanie Usher added eight points, all coming on offensive rebounds.