MODESTO — The Modesto Junior College women kicked off the Big 8 Conference season Tuesday night in a nervous fit.
They trailed a hustling American River team 28-12. Starting center Madelyn Birchall (ankle) graced the MJC bench in street clothes. Point guard Camille Roberts (knee) managed only a cameo appearance. A bookkeeping error technical foul, of all things, resulted in ARC free throws.
"We were surprised to be down," MJC coach Mike Girardi admitted. "We weren't playing hard enough."
Then Modesto showed why it's ranked sixth in Northern California.
The Pirates (12-3, 1-0) launched a sticky press that rattled the Beavers, delivered a remarkable 29-point turnaround and notched a 63-50 Big 8 Conference-opening victory at MJC Gym.
Digging through layers of adversity was one thing. Blanking ARC for 11:30 while running off 20 straight points was quite another.
"When we go into our press, everything changes," sophomore guard Briona Fontenot said.
Plan A calls for Modesto to hang on while Birchall and Roberts rehab. The 5-foot-10 Birchall, a difference-making transfer, could return next week. Until then, the Pirates will rely on their team depth and, yes, that nasty trapping press.
MJC followed the same script in its previous game, a rally from a 10-point deficit with 10 minutes to play and an eventual 12-point win over Sequoias at the Delta tournament. Say this about the Pirates they don't panic.
When their shots didn't fall and they surely didn't during the game's first 15 minutes they reverted to defense. Which is what they do best. Outscoring the American River bench 25-13 helped.
"We were trying to utilize everybody," guard Jode Johnson said. "Now we focus on our defense. That's what we're known for."
Johnson (15 points), Briona Fontenot (9 points) and Lexy Posz formed the teeth of the press that tightened on the tired Beavers as the second half wore on. Addie Garza contributed clutch baskets en route to 12 points and Shiloh Soto connected for important hoops.
A 10-footer in the paint and eventual 3-point play by 6-foot-2 Jamie Beck put Modesto ahead to stay 30-28 with 15:18 left. Even better for Modesto, it overtook and pulled away from American River. The Pirates, who sustained their momentum by cashing in on 19 of 22 free throws, extended the lead to 15 points in the final moments.
It didn't matter that Modesto failed to hit a single 3-pointer. Defense was the answer.
"They were just feeding off each other with the press. It added to our energy," Girardi said. "I'm proud of the way they kept fighting."
MJC MEN FALL The gym's heating unit failed, a bad omen for the cold-shooting Pirates in a disappointing 74-52 loss to open the Big 8. A crowd of about 400 watched American River (7-5, 1-0) make relatively fast work of a team slumping at the wrong time.
The Pirates (8-7, 0-1) never led, trailed 20-5 after nine minutes and were not within 10 points again. They were even tagged for two technical fouls one after a made slam dunk and another for a wrong jersey number enrolled in the scorebook.
"I don't have any answers, only questions," coach Paul Brogan said. "I have to evaluate everything. It's not normal for a team to get worse."
Modesto, devoid of a strong inside game other than forward Brenden Evans (9 points), struggled on offense. Forward Tashawn Mabry sat for a long stretch of the second half, though he finished with 12 points.
Conversely, American River gashed the Modesto defense for a parade of layups and dunks. Jarvis Watkins, a smooth operator inside 10 feet, scored steadily throughout the night for 27 points.
American River did not net a 3-pointer, but perimeter shots were not needed. Mardell Thompson, another guard, found easy shots near the rim for 12 points. Chad Haysbert, the Beavers' 6-8 post, finished with 13 points and disrupted MJC's inside attack. Chris Carvin had 14 points.
"We started the season off good. All teams slump, but with us, we stay in a slump too long," Evans said. "It's just a lot of simple little things. No one can get a grasp on it. There is a long way to go so we can ride it out. We're just in a tough spot right now."
Jeremy Alexander supplied some punch for Modesto with 11 points. MJC guard Billy Young returned to the court for the first time since the 2011 season and totaled six points.