MODESTO -- On the surface, Central Catholic's 75-66 victory over Patterson put the Raiders in complete control of the Western Athletic Conference title hopes.
But in the bigger picture, it was more important to see the way Central Catholic took care of business against a quality of team it's not going to see again until very late in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 5 playoffs.
Joe Hamilton started and finished fast, scoring 10 points in the first and fourth quarters to finish with 25 points, while John Fenton dominated inside with 22 points, 26 rebounds and four blocked shots as the Raiders avenged an earlier 68-66 loss at Patterson.
Central Catholic (22-3 overall, 9-1 in the WAC) needs only to hold home court against Livingston and Central Valley to claim an outright league title, and then its on to the playoffs.
Coach Mike Wilson obviously wants his team to concentrate on the task at hand before thinking about any possible playoff matchups or trips to Sleep Train Arena, but he knows Wednesday's performance was the kind of effort his Raiders will need to keep advancing in the postseason.
"This win was to get to the top of the hill," Wilson said. "And now we have to stay on that road."
But despite the loss, the same can be said about the Tigers (20-6, 9-2), who played a steady, high-level game despite missing floor general, leading scorer and team captain Keegan Sanchez. He sat out the game after violating a team rule.
Patterson, headed to a probable first-round home game in the Division 3 playoffs, not only remained calm without Sanchez on the floor, but outplayed the Raiders on the perimeter while committing only four turnovers.
"Today was a playoff-type game," said Patterson coach Agustin Arreola. "The atmosphere, the crowd, the pace of the game, the execution. Central Catholic is going to be a NorCal team, so if we're able to execute like this and take care of the basketball this way when we're back at full strength, we'll be OK. We like our chances."
Junior Cariaun Williams scored 20 points and John Minton added 12 points by connecting on four of Patterson's 10 3-pointers, giving the Tigers the outside attack it needed to counter Central Catholic's inside game.
And that's another place where this contest resembled the postseason, a time when the officials generally allow teams to play a physical style of game both inside and out.
Fenton played only three minutes of the first half in the game on Jan. 16 after picking up two soft fouls. There were no softies in the rematch.
"I love it when we're able to use our team's advantage," said Fenton, the 6-foot-9 Colgate University-bound senior. "We have 6-9, 6-6, 6-6 on the floor and against teams like Patterson you can get seals and rebounds."
The Tigers were able to get to the basket occasionally, but except for the rare long rebound they had very few second-chance opportunities.
That killed their chances down the stretch, especially after Hamilton scored seven points in a 9-3 spurt that gave Central Catholic a 70-60 lead in the final two minutes, a margin that matched the Raiders' largest advantage at any time in the game.
"Central did a good job of getting Hamilton the ball in good positions to hurt us," Arreola said.
"Both teams played great basketball, high quality basketball. Our guards outplayed their guards, but Central Catholic's strength inside was the difference in the game."