OAKDALE -- Cassandra Clark and her Oakdale High basketball team got an early start to the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs Monday night.
For a half, though,it looked as if the Mustangs didn't realize the postseason was here.
"Lack of effort was a problem in the first half, so coach was on us at halftime to pick up the intensity," said Clark.
The Mustangs took the suggestion to heart, revving up their transition game and using a dominant third quarter for a 64-48 win over Livingston in a Division III game.
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The play-in game was needed because Livingston won the Western Athletic Conference, but wasn't among the top 16 teams in the power ratings.
The section set up this game vs. No. 16 Oakdale rather than face the awkward situation of a league champion being denied a playoff berth.
Oakdale's (19-8) reward for winning? The Mustangs travel to Stockton tonight to face St. Mary's (26-1) -- the nation's consensus No. 1 team.
"We have to look at the positives we can get from playing a team like St. Mary's," said Clark, whose 25-point effort included 17 in the first half. "We opened the playoffs with a win, and that's what we're focusing on tonight."
The Mustangs were certainly focused in the second half, turning a 28-23 halftime lead into a 14-point advantage after three quarters,
Livingston (18-9) got within 30-27 when Maria Flores (18 points, 10 rebounds) went inside for a bucket, but the Mustangs responded with a 19-8 run that featured six different players hitting shots.
Even Monja Myann, a foreign exchange from Norway playing her first year of basketball, got into the act with a jumper for a 44-31 lead with 2:15 left in the third. Oakdale started the run on Alanna Jones' (six points, nine rebounds) 10-footer.
After Carley Barton (15 points) scored in transition and on a 15-footer, before Livingston's Tara Lao (11 points) converted a three-point play. Clark then broke behind the defense for a layup, then Naydee Fernandez and Clark turned steals into layups.
"We picked up our defense in the second half and that allowed us to get out and run," said Clark, who was 10 of 16 from the floor. "We weren't into the game during the first half and I'm not sure why. We've done it a few times this year, and we've lost games we probably should have won because of it."
After Livingston broke Oakdale's mini six-point run with a free throw, the Mustangs scored seven quick points for a 49-31 lead. Clark had a three-point play in the middle of the spurt, driving to the basket and flipping in a layup before being knocked down. She hit the free throw -- Oakdale was 9 of 14 from the free-throw line -- and Oakdale was in charge.
Tonight comes a challenge of a different kind.
St. Mary's thrives on pressure defense, a lightning-quick offense and trying to humiliate its opponents. A year ago, the Rams routed Livingston (99-15), Sonora (95-39) and East Union (90-35) on the way to the section title -- an average margin of victory of 65.
"It's as simple as their talent," said Oakdale coach Gary Smith, aware that St. Mary's has three seniors who have signed with Division I colleges. "Then they go the bench, where there's more depth."
Bee staff writer Richard T. Estrada can be reached at (209) 578-2300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.