It was like going to the county fair after having attended the World's Fair -- and coming away pleasantly surprised.
Defending state Division I champion Westchester and Los Angeles Fairfax may not have possessed the star wattage of a year ago, but they certainly put on a more entertaining display Tuesday night than the 32-point blowout that spoiled last season's meeting at Fairfax.
And if Fairfax's 58-55 victory over its Western League nemesis before a noisy, overflow home crowd of about 1,250 was any indication, the Lions might have gained an edge in what has become Southern California's top boys' basketball rivalry over the last two years.
"If you look at their national rankings, we haven't had anything like this in recent years," said Palisades Coach James Paleno, whose Dolphins have been relegated to vying for third place in the Western League standings. "This is great for high school sports. It's like some of those old rivalries in football between Carson and Banning."
In basketball parlance, Westchester-Fairfax has evolved into a classic rivalry a la Crenshaw-Manual Arts or Fremont-Dorsey, and the outcome of a single game can reverberate not only across a city but an entire country.
Consider the rankings. Fairfax (14-1, 2-0), No. 2 in The Times' Southland rankings, came into the game ranked No. 5 nationally by USA Today. Westchester (14-2, 1-1), ranked third by The Times, entered with a No. 7 national ranking.
Fairfax solidified its poll position Tuesday by rallying from a 19-point, second-quarter deficit against a Westchester team that seemingly made every shot it took the first 12 minutes. The Lions turned up the aggression midway through the second quarter and trimmed the deficit to a manageable seven points by halftime, much to the delight of the crowd.
Just like last year, the event was a sellout hours before game time. But security personnel improved the conditions indoors by allowing several doors to the gymnasium to remain open during the contest. Last year, with the doors closed, a sweltering atmosphere caused water to condense on the walls.
Tuesday's crowd was noticeably devoid of the luminaries who attended last year's game, including a dozen NBA scouts, Arizona Coach Lute Olson and former Dodger general manager Kevin Malone. They were drawn by the opportunity to see Westchester's Hassan Adams, who would go on to star at Arizona, and Fairfax's Evan Burns, who signed with UCLA but ended up at San Diego State.
The only scout was from Arizona State. And with one notable exception -- UCLA-bound forward Trevor Ariza of Westchester -- the senior leaders on each team were headed toward colleges without instant name recognition. When the teams last met at Fairfax, Westchester prevailed, 100-68, in a game that was decided before the end of the second quarter.
Fairfax returned the favor with a four-point victory when the teams met at Westchester a few weeks later, but Westchester won three of four games between the teams on the season -- including the City Section championship game.
Fairfax got this season's series off to a good start after outscoring the three-time defending City champions, 19-2, in the third quarter. Forward Alex Bausley, who is being recruited by Holy Cross, converted two three-pointers and had eight of his 15 points in the quarter. Fairfax led, 52-42, after Bausley made two free throws to end the quarter.
"We weren't focused at the beginning," Bausley conceded afterward. "In the third quarter we just focused and relaxed."
Westchester chipped away at the deficit throughout the fourth quarter as Fairfax ran down the shot clock and settled for difficult jump shots. Point guard Bobby Brown, one of four new Comet starters, made a three-pointer with 59 seconds left to pull Westchester within 56-55.
The Comets wouldn't score again.
"The character of our team really kept us in it," Fairfax Coach Harvey Kitani said. "Our guys just hung tough and kept their composure."
Fairfax guard Kevin Bell, who is headed to Louisiana-Lafayette next season, led all scorers with 21 points. Westchester forward Scott Cutley, bound for Kent, had 14 points for Westchester.