SALIDA — The pinky finger on T.J. Wallace's left hand, his shooting hand, was swollen and stiff, locked in an unnatural angle.
He grimaced as he slid a metal splint over the digit and squeezed it into position with his right hand, which forced the finger to straighten.
Then he joked about it.
"And I really want to learn how to play piano," Wallace said.
Basketball first. Wallace, a senior transfer from McNair High, made his home debut for Modesto Christian on Thursday night, scoring 19 points to lead the Crusaders to a 77-56 victory over Sylmar and into the semifinals of the MC Holiday Hoop Classic.
The scoring, which included 15 first-half points, almost was secondary to his impact. Because of his finger injury, which may include torn tendons and/or ligaments, Wallace may be held out of action periodically.
So he didn't play in MC's tourney opener, which it won despite struggling to play with any acceptable level of energy. But from the opening tip against the Spartans there was a noticeable uptick in the Crusaders' speed and focus, which allowed them to make quick work of Sylmar.
"T.J. has to be a reason for a lot of that initial energy," said MC co-coach Gary Porter. "He's a high-energy guy and a born leader. So that helped, along with the fact that the team got a chewing out after the game last night and the guys came to play tonight. But he does make a difference."
Wallace and teammate Raymond Bowles both signed letters of intent to play college basketball at the University of the Pacific, and the now-and-future teammates also share the primary on-court senior leadership role for this year's Crusaders (8-1).
"Bringing that energy is part of my job, but overall our mental preparation for this game was a lot better," Wallace said.
"Last night we seemed to be going through the motions. Tonight we got focused and got warmed up and going before the game started. My job is to be a vocal leader me and Raymond but overall it was a group effort."
Modesto Christian will face defending tournament and state Division 3 champion Bishop Alemany at 7 p.m. tonight in the tournament semifinal. Weston Ranch and El Camino Real square off at 8:30 in the other semifinal.
Since this was Wallace's first home game for MC, it also was his first chance to play in the tiny Crusaders' gym, which, as usual for this event, was filled nearly to capacity.
"The atmosphere at this tournament, to me, is so welcoming," Wallace said. "It's a small gym, but it's packed because there's a lot of support here for MC basketball. Everybody is rooting us on."
MC made things comfortable for the home crowd by leading tip to buzzer, opening a double-digit lead in the opening 10 minutes and extending out to a 38-23 halftime lead.
The margin allowed the Crusaders to substitute freely and still open leads as large as 25 points in the second half.
Bowles finished with 13 points and sophomore post Anthony Townes added 12. Sylmar was led by the 19 points of 6-8 junior forward Devenir Duruisseau.
The injured finger? It's not going to get better during the season.
"His finger is hurting, bad," Porter said. "But he's a tough guy in the old mold. He plays through it, and that's what makes him more of a true leader."
Wallace said he plans to play on despite the injury. And then piano lessons?
"It was straight when the game started," he said. "Since I didn't play last night, this was my first chance to play at home, and because of all that adrenaline I really didn't feel too much until I came and sat down on the bench.
"I'll wait until the end of the season to deal with it because there's not too much you can do with a finger."
WESTON RANCH 71, CENTRAL 61 Eric Duncan and Dylan Alexander led the Cougars (6-3) to one of the bigger upsets in several years in this tournament, as Weston Ranch outscored the Grizzlies 18-5 over the final 5:30. Duncan hit three 3-pointers and finished with 26 points, while Alexander had two 3-pointers among his 23 points to lead Weston Ranch to its second straight trip to the semifinal round.
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2150.
Second Round Scores
Modesto Christian 77, Sylmar 56
Weston Ranch 71, Central-Fresno 59
El Camino Real 85, University 49
Bishop Alemany 82, Burbank 58
Centennial 54, Turlock 38
Cesar Chavez 67, Ripon 46
Foothill 52, Clovis East 49
Granada Hills 80, Horizon 60