SAN JOSE — Put the notion to rest that it's not how you start, but how you finish.
On Tuesday night, on the biggest stage the Modesto Christian boys' basketball team has played on in 12 years, it finished strong and was the better team the entire second half against Archbishop Mitty.
But a poor first half did in the Crusaders, who fell behind by 14 points before losing 58-54 on the Monarchs' home court.
Modesto Christian (29-4) was aiming for a return to Sleep Train Arena and a chance to play for a NorCal title in the first year of Open Division play essentially hoping for a chance to play for a title at the state's highest level, as it did in 2001.
Instead, the Monarchs (28-5) advanced to Saturday night's game in Sacramento against a decided home team in Sheldon, which snapped Salesian's 75-game win streak against NorCal teams with a 63-59 overtime victory at St. Mary's College.
"I honestly believe that with a solid first quarter we could have won this game," said T.J. Wallace, who capped his lone season in the MC program with a game-high 22 points.
"That was the deciding factor. You can't come out slow against Mitty because they have a lot of players who can hurt you."
How slow was the start? Mitty jumped out to a 9-0 lead in the opening three minutes before MC was able to find the hoop, forcing the Crusaders to have to push the rock uphill the rest of the game.
The slow start was exacerbated when the Monarchs scored six points in the final 1 minute, 13 seconds, of the half to pull out to a 34-20 lead at intermission.
"We talked about the slow start in the big game," said Richard Midgley, closing out his first year as co-coach. "We were a little tentative early, and maybe that was the magnitude of the big game.
"Once we relaxed and got that out of our system we were able to pick up the pressure. But we put ourselves in a hole."
What made the 14-point deficit more painful was that MC especially sophomore post Anthony Townes was doing a strong job keeping 6-9 senior Aaron Gordon from dominating.
The McDonald's All-America Player of the Year finalist finished with 17 points, 10 rebounds and six blocked shots, but to his credit never forced the action. Townes had 14 points for the Crusaders.
In fact, what really hurt MC was Gordon's ability to pass out of the double-team. He had six assists, with three of them quick passes out of the low post to open teammates for 3-pointers.
"He's so big and strong that he was able to rip through the double team and pass over it," Midgley said. "Anthony did a really good job and Gordon didn't get too many offensive rebounds. He's an elite player and showed it tonight."
But in the second half, perhaps because their backs were to the wall, MC responded on defense, forcing 11 turnovers from a Monarchs' team that takes pride in taking care of the ball.
The Crusaders closed the first half on an 11-5 run to get back in the game, then a steal led to a basket from freshman Christian Ellis that capped a 6-0 spurt to pull MC within 47-45 with 4:12 remaining.
"Give credit to the kids for coming back after being down 14 at halftime, and getting into a position to win," Midgley said. "A couple bounces go our way, maybe this was our game."
Every time MC pulled within a possession, Mitty was able to answer immediately with a score. Then, one late bit of strategy backfired. After Gordon missed three straight free throws, MC trailing 49-47 decided to foul him intentionally on the perimeter.
Tyras Rattler reached in and fouled Gordon as he held the ball around his kneecaps about 25 feet from the basket. Instinctively, Gordon rose and fired a 3-pointer, and was rewarded for the move with three free throws, making all three for a 52-47 lead.
"Hack-a-Shaq was exactly what was going through my mind, but Shaq doesn't attempt to shoot 3s," Gordon said. "I wanted to make them pay for fouling me."
MC wasn't finished, and pulled back within 52-51 when Ellis scored on a drive and Wallace went coast-to-coast after a rebound to score with 1:17 left.
Again, Gordon got involved, beating MC's double-team with a quick pass to teammate Connor Peterson, who capped a 14-point effort with his second 3-pointer of the game with 55 seconds left for a 55-51 lead.
The Crusaders never again had the ball with a chance to tie, and Gordon made sure of that by stepping outside to block two 3-point attempts in the final minute.
"This was a pretty good year for the team," said Raymond Bowles, who capped his career as a four-year starter with 11 points. "We've improved during the year and this team works hard. I know next year that the team will come even harder.
"They'll keep tonight in mind and next year make a run at the state championship."
Brian VanderBeek can be reached at (209) 578-2150 or follow him on Twitter, @modestobeek
NORTHERN CALIFORNIA REGIONAL BASKETBALL PLAYOFFS