With a few minutes remaining in a recent game and top-ranked Crossland leading by 21 points, the crowd began chanting for Coach Earl Hawkins to play some of his reserves. Hawkins complied, only to resummon his starting unit when the lead was cut to 15 points a minute later.

"Hey, don't forget about the three-point shot," Hawkins yelled toward the crowd and in particular to spectator Donnie Gray, a long-time friend and one of the top basketball officials in the area. "A team can come back quickly."

Hawkins had seen Henry Hall, Parkdale's outstanding guard, pepper his team for several 40-point efforts over the past couple of seasons and was not about to relax until the buzzer sounded.

That is vintage Hawkins. Always cautious, careful and taking nothing for granted, Hawkins has worked extremely hard to build a program just beginning to reap the benefits that accompany a top-ranked team. Always on the fringe of stardom, the Cavaliers are the area's only unbeaten team, having finished 18-0 to win the Prince George's County AA League title and 22-0 overall going into its regional semifinal against High Point (12-9) at 8 p.m. Friday at Prince George's Community College.

"Finishing 26-0 would be a dream come true but we are not there yet; we still have games left," Hawkins said. "I do believe we've finally reached the stage where our program has been accepted with the DeMathas, Dunbars and Flint Hills.

"I understand until you've established yourself and paid your dues, you don't get the national recognition. You can't say which team will beat another until you play and right now, I don't think we have to take a back seat to anyone."

Hawkins isn't blowing smoke. In his 10th season as head coach, the 35-year-old has a 172-78 record and has reached the regional final four times. The Cavaliers, winners of 68 of their last 74 games, captured the Maryland Class AA state championship in 1986 and were runners-up to Northwestern last year.

With a blistering fast-break offense and tough defense, Crossland has averaged more than 84 points per game and has had only five games decided by less than 10 points this season.

At times, however, the Cavaliers look out of synch.

"Sometimes we tend to relax and let up on teams," said Crossland's leader, 6-foot-8 senior Walter Williams, who has signed with Maryland. "But we know what we can do and our goal is to win as many games as we can. Coach tells us to go out and just play as hard as we can. If we do that, he doesn't yell as loud."

Hawkins admits he is too intense at times. A former star at Gwynn Park, where he led the Yellow Jackets to two state titles and still holds the rebounding record (31) in a state-playoff game, he was the leading scorer and rebounder three years at Glenville State (W.Va). Hawkins says he knows only one way to approach the game.

"I know I don't know everything about the game and I learn something each game, but I insist the kids play hard," he said. "We want to play the best teams we can and we work hard to prepare ourselves for everyone. I've changed as a coach over the years but I still believe in doing a lot of drills. Repetition, repetition, repetition."

Hawkins' all-senior starting unit is as good as any around. Williams (21 points, nine rebounds, three blocks), 6-2 1/2 Bernard Hunt (21 points, six rebounds, three steals), 6-0 Anthony Higginbotham (14 points, six assists), 6-0 Greg Clarke (eight points, five assists) and 6-5 Paul Hughes (four points, five rebounds) complement one another and have been consistent all season.

"Our offense revolves around everyone, no one is expected to do everything," Hunt said. "I think we are a little better than last year's {23-3} team; we are quicker and not as selfish."

Although Hawkins is enjoying his recent success at the Temple Hills, Md., school, he is hoping one day to coach at the collegiate level.

"I've been to a couple of interviews and I'm keeping my options open," Hawkins said. "I think each year we win 22, 23 games, it strengthens my position for collegiate consideration. I've worked on being prepared for all situations. We are not a one-dimensional team, The fast break is our strength but we can play a half-court game equally as well.

"The kids have taken pride in being ranked first and we've received total support from the students, faculty and community. But we can't get overconfident. Anyone can beat you if you aren't ready to play. And, of course, being first makes you a target for everyone to shoot at. It takes a lot of work to get to the top and is an even bigger challenge to stay there."