HAYWARD -- There is a "D" in Modesto Christian, and obviously you can't embark on a successful Crusade without one.
It seems like the lone talking point in the Crusaders boys' run to a section title and now in the Open Division of the NorCal regional playoffs has been their defense.
But early in the season, this team bought into the idea that defense would be their key to winning in the postseason, and sixth-seeded MC has never played it better than it did Friday night in stunning No. 3 Bishop O'Dowd 57-42 in front of a capacity crowd at Chabot College.
"We been saying from Day One that we wanted to be a part of the Open Division," said co-coach Richard Midgley. "We know we can match up athletically with anyone. We just have to put together a good gameplan and the kids have to buy into it."
Modesto Christian will take a 29-3 record into Tuesday's semifinal game against the winner of tonight's Newark Memorial-Archbishop Mitty game. A Newark victory would give the Crusaders a home game.
It's always easier to prepare for anything a game, a test when you have fresh visual cues, and there was a lot of familiarity between these teams.
On Feb. 9, the Dragons invaded MC's gym and came out with a 71-62 win as 6-feet, 9-inch sophomore Ivan Rabb had 22 points and 16 rebounds, so the Crusaders knew what they'd be up against in the rematch.
Modesto Christian attempted to double team Rabb in that first game, but he still had his way. This time, while MC's own sophomore post Anthony Townes had primary defense on Rabb, the responsibility for the double team went to guard T.J. Wallace, who is the strongest Crusader physically.
"The double down worked for us," Wallace said. "We forced the ball out of Ivan Rabb's hands a few times, which put other players on their team in the uncomfortable position of having to do different things than their accustomed to doing."
In addition, putting a second body on Rabb kept him off the offensive boards, and once MC began to control the caroms at that end, they used their superior speed to transition their way to easy points.
"We kept harping the whole game about defensive rebounds, because if we got them, we knew we'd win the game," Midgley said. "Once we started getting the boards, we knew Bishop O'Dowd wasn't fast enough to keep up with us."
There was a lot more familiarity at work. While playing at the University of California, Midgley trained with first-year Bishop O'Dowd coach Lou Richie, and the two are very close friends.
On top of that, Rabb and Townes were teammates last summer with the high-powered AAU Oakland Soldiers.
"I know all his moves and I knew better how to box him out this time," said Townes, who gives up three inches to Rabb.
"I had to be physical with him because I am a lot stronger than him. I played with him all summer, so we've had the chance to go at it."
Rabb was limited to 12 points and six rebounds, and grabbed only one rebound in the second half. Some of the scoring slack was picked up on the weakside by Michael Perri, with 13 points, but the Crusaders attacked with balance.
Four Modesto Christian players hit double figures, with Raymond Bowles scoring 14, Wallace and Zerrion Payton 12 apiece and Townes 10.
The Crusaders never trailed after finishing the first quarter on an 11-2 run to take a 13-8 lead, and built the lead slowly throughout the game, leading 27-20 at halftime and 39-31 after three quarters.
But the Dragons (26-4) certainly would have one last run, and they made it early in the fourth quarter, cutting the gap to 41-36 on a Perri weakside tip-in.
Modesto Christian again turned to its defense to halt the run, and turned back-to-back stops into fast break baskets by Payton at the other end for a 45-36 lead entering the final four minutes.
With Rabb's offense nullified by the double-down and the Dragon uncomfortable from the perimeter, there wasn't enough time remaining to chip away at the lead, and the Crusaders closed the game on a 10-2 exclamation point to win going away.
"We were going to come out hungry after having lost to them in our house," Bowles said. "It's the first Open Division and I'm so grateful to be able to be a part of it, but I also have no doubt we deserve to be in it."
Brian VanderBeek can be reached at (209) 578-2150 or follow him on Twitter, @modestobeek.
Northern California Regional Score & Schedule
Boys Open Division
Modesto Chr. 57, Bishop O'Dowd 42
Boys Division 5
Central Catholic (26-4) at University-SF (24-8,) Kezar Pavilion, 7 p.m.
Girls Division 3
Modesto Chr. (22-9) at Enterprise (28-1,) 6 p.m.
Girls Division 5
Turlock Chr. (25-5) at International-SF (29-4), 7 p.m.