March 21, 2010
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La Verne Lutheran owns the court after defeating Windward 52-50 to advance to the State Championship next Saturday.

La Verne Lutheran owns the court after defeating Windward 52-50 to advance to the State Championship next Saturday.

The dingdong battle for Division V Regional Championship game played out like a heavyweight title fight between Mohammed Ali and Joe Frazier or a classic racing duel between Affirmed and Alydar. One foe could never distance himself from the other. Playing only 16 days after their first match in which the Trojans defeated the Wildcats 62-61 on a last-second buzzer-beater in the Southern Section Division 5AA Final, the two were at it again on Saturday at Colony High School in Ontario, playing for the rights to face Ross Branson next Saturday in Bakersfield for the State championship.

In an ugly first quarter, La Verne Lutheran edged Windward, 8-7. At the half, Windward clung to A 21-19 advantage. After three quarters, Windward’s razor-thin margin was whittled to just a point, 37-36. At no time did either team enjoy more than a six-point lead.

Then came the frenzied fourth and final quarter, both corners confident of victory, but the packed arena had room for only one champion. The Trojans drew first blood, Kevin Payne knocking down a clutch shot to put Lutheran up, 38-37. After a Windward free throw tied the score at 38-38, C.J. Cooper, who finished with 13 points and seven assists, dished the ball to Bruce English for a short baseline jumper and two of his 17 points. The Cooper-English combo connection was reminiscent of Lutheran’s game winner in the two teams’ first memorable showdown.

Coach Cooper urges his team on during the game that saw the lead go back and forth right down to C.J. Cooper's winning shot.

Coach Cooper urges his team on during the game that saw the lead go back and forth right down to C.J. Cooper's winning shot.

Leading by a bucket, 40-38, Lutheran freshman Eric Cooper converted a layup and drew the foul. After connecting on the “and-one” to go up, 43-38, Windward called time out. When play resumed, Windward’s 6-foot-5 junior, Wesley Saunders, the Wildcats high scorer with 17 points, hit one free throw. Then sensational Wildcats’ freshman point guard, Jordan Wilson, the smallest player on the floor, tossed in a floater to bring Windward within two, 43-41.

Not to be upstaged, fellow freshman standout Eric Cooper, Jr., Lutheran Coach Eric Cooper’s son, banked home a three-pointer from the top of the key to give the Trojans a five-point lead, 46-41.

Just as it appeared the Trojans had finally broken free of Windward’s intense pursuit, the referees found blood on the No. 33 jersey of Lutheran sophomore Grant Jerrett and whistled a stop in play. In a panic at the thought of losing its towering, game-changing presence under the basket, Coach Cooper called time out. The partisan Lutheran crowd began yelling that the offending red stain on his jersey was Gatorade. The medical staff promptly sprayed Jerrett’s jersey with hydrogen peroxide, erasing the suspicious stain to put Jerrett back on the court.

With the resumption of play, Windward’s Nicholas Stover knocked down a deuce to bring the Wildcats within three points, 46-43. English responded with a driving layup that, although blocked, was ruled goal-tending, giving the Trojans another five-point cushion.

But in this game, no lead was safe. With time winding down, Stover unloaded a three-pointer and after a pair of free throws from Saunders, the game was knotted at 48-48.

C.J. Cooper is making it a habit of doing post-game interviews.

C.J. Cooper is making it a habit of doing post-game interviews.

The next trip down the court for the Trojans, English drew a foul, converting one, his spotty free-throw shooting the only blemish on his otherwise brilliant play. With Windward trailing 49-48, Saunders came right back on the block, scoring a basket and drawing the foul to put the Wildcats up 50-49. Saunders missed the free throw, however, leaving the Trojans with a chance to regain the lead.

On the next possession, C.J. Cooper raced down the court and launched an off-balance runner from the left side that banked in and drew the foul with 23 seconds left. After converting the free throw, Lutheran led 52-50.

In a final flurry, Windward put up shot after shot underneath the basket without getting the ball to drop through the net. Gaining another offensive rebound, Windward called time out with seven seconds remaining, their season and defense of the state tile both on the line.

The ball went inside again to Saunders, who forced an off-balance shot under heavy pressure. It was a scrum for the ball, as the referees let both teams play. Finally the ball squirted loose, with C.J. Cooper sprinting free of the pack, tossing the ball in the air as the game clock expired.

Better than an upcoming appearance at Disneyland, La Verne Lutheran was headed to Bakersfield.

For Lutheran, there were many remarkable performances, including the always dominating presence of Jerrett and Xavier Jones under the basket, the clutch baskets and defense of Kevin Payne, English’s confident play, once again turning the Colony gym into his personal home court and Eric Cooper’s six points down the stretch when they were needed most, the freshman stepping up on the biggest stage of his young playing career.

Was it nerve-racking letting the freshman launch some of those last-second critical shots?

“Not at all,” Coach Cooper said, without hesitation. “He can make those shots. He does it all the time.”

As for coach Cooper’s nephew, C.J. Cooper, again nailing the back-breaking shot to give Lutheran its berth in the state championships.

“That’s C.J. being C.J.,” he said. “I never really had a doubt about C.J. or the team.”

On hand to watch the final shot were hundreds of fans and dozens of Division I college coaches and scouts, including longtime Michigan coach Steve Fisher who led the Wolverines and Glen Rice to the 1989 NCAA title and also coached the Fab Five of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Ray Jackson, Jimmy King and Juwan Howard to NCAA finals appearances their freshman and sophomore years. Only two days earlier Fisher, now with San Diego State, saw his Aztecs lose a close game to Tennessee in the first-round of the NCAA basketball playoffs.

Why are you here coach? How do our high school players stack up againsnt the best in the East?

“Very well, that’s why we’re here.”

Fisher will get no argument from Coach Cooper who now prepares his team for one final game, the State Championship.

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