Coach Willie West had an empty spot for his new basketball championship banner along the ceiling of the Crenshaw gymnasium. The 16 others that hang in the Cougar Den attest to the school's wall-to-wall titles, but that one spot has been conspicuously barren since Crenshaw last won a championship in 1989.
Now West can start redecorating.
The Cougars won a record fifth state title with a 73-66 victory over the Carmichael Jesuit Marauders in the CIF State Division I finals March 20 at the Oakland Coliseum Arena. And the Cougars will get another banner for this year's 12th City Section championship.
Though the glory of the state title is still fresh on their minds, the Cougars (26-2), who started four juniors this season, are already looking to next season and clearing another place on the Cougar Den ceiling.
"I don't think people should overlook us," West said. "We graduate six seniors and we've got the rest of them back. I think we're going to be a team to reckon with."
Starters who will return for 1993-94 include junior forwards Kristaan Johnson (6-5) and Tremaine Fowlkes (6-6), junior guard Reggie McFerren (6-5) and sophomore center Leon Watson (6-7). Johnson, who averaged 22.6 points and 14 rebounds this season, was named the City 4-A Player of the Year. Fowlkes, who averaged 21.3 points and 16.4 rebounds, was also selected to the 4-A first team.
Point guard Maurice Robinson is the only starter who is graduating.
The Cougars list seven returning varsity lettermen, and that is just the beginning, according to West.
"We also had a pretty good junior varsity team and some of them will take the place of the players who are graduating. And you never know who else we might get (from other schools)," he said.
Said Fowlkes: "Are we going to repeat? Oh, we're going to be better next year. All we need to find is a point guard."
The fact that the Cougars had nine transfers this season had some opposing coaches grumbling.
"All anyone talks about are the players (who) transfer into the Crenshaw district," West said. "No one wants to talk about the players (who) leave our school district and play for other schools. I heard Jacque Vaughn (of Pasadena Muir) lives in the area. What would people say if he played for us?"
Jesuit Coach Hank Meyer was sufficiently impressed with the team Crenshaw brought to Oakland last week. The Marauders (35-2) had a 20-game winning streak snapped by the Cougars. Their only other loss was to St. Anthony of New Jersey, which is ranked fourth in the nation.
"They (Crenshaw) go hard to the boards," Meyer said. "They're relentless, and that hurt. They would miss, but come up with the key rebound and put it back in."
Jesuit shot only 35% to Crenshaw's 46% from the floor and missed all 15 of its three-point attempts. The Marauders also had trouble at the free-throw line.
"When you look at the statistics, you can't shoot 18 of 32 from the free-throw line and win," Meyer said. "We also didn't shoot that well from the floor. I have to give credit to Crenshaw. Their defense stopped us."
Jesuit came into the game ranked fifth in the nation by USA Today; Crenshaw was 23rd. But that did not seem to bother the Cougars, who found themselves cast as underdogs in the state playoffs.
"When you look at a team like Jesuit and they're rated No. 5 in the country, you have to respect that," West said. "Even though we never saw them play, you have to respect the rating to that degree. I told the players that we were the underdog and we had to prove we were a good team."
Johnson, who scored the winning buzzer-beater basket against Santa Ana Mater Dei in the Southern Regional final, said Jesuit was the best team the Cougars
faced this year. "I thought they were a real good team," he said. "I can't tell that much from warm-ups, but when they came out they were pretty big and their guys looked real good."
West never plays up the ability of his team's opponents and the Cougars always seem relaxed at the start of the game. During their four state playoff games, the Cougars never trailed by more than a basket.
"I told the players we weren't going to do anything different defensively because it's too late to change," West said. "A lot of the teams we've played this year thrive on three-point shooting. Consequently, I think we do a good job of helping out on defense."
The Cougars also relied on Fowlkes, McFerren and Johnson to carry the team offensively. In the championship game, Fowlkes had 17 points--including 14 in the second half--and 17 rebounds, and Johnson and McFerren each scored 19.
"I had a rough first half, but in the second half I came out and got in the flow of things," Fowlkes said. "When we needed crucial baskets, I was there. That's what I was planning to do if they started to come back. They're a great team. Beating them should put us in the top five or 10 in the nation."
Crenshaw moved up to No. 6 in USA Today's national rankings and Jesuit dropped out of the Top 25.
"It feels great to win my first state championship," said Fowlkes, who has attended three schools in three years.
"We plan on coming back next year. We want to come back to the big dance again. But right now we're just going to celebrate this victory, all week, all year."