March 9, 2008

Fast-paced championship game was fun to watch

FOLSOM -- The fans began to stream into the Folsom High gymnasium at about halftime of the previous game.

Some wore the red and white of the St. Mary's High Panthers of Albany. Others wore the red, white and blue of the Modesto Christian Crusaders. All were basketball fans.

They filled the 3,000-capacity gym before the opening tip, forcing some to stand at their seats.

And nobody left Saturday night's CIF Northern California Regional Division IV boys basketball championship disappointed.

The stars came out to play, even for the professional-level national anthem before the game.

And with all that hype -- state No. 2 St. Mary's vs. state No. 3 Modesto Christian -- the kids lived up to it.

The final score -- St. Mary's 82, Modesto Christian 70 -- set a NorCal final game record for combined points scored. The Panthers also set a record for most points scored by the winning team.

What made the game so much fun was its style. In Modesto Christian's 6-year run of consecutive NorCal championship games, St. Mary's was the Crusaders' first opponent that was willing to run with them.

And, boy, did they run.

Not until the final moments did either team take more than 25 seconds to take a shot.

"St. Mary's, that's a really good team," MC coach Gary Porter said. "They hustled the entire game and played great defense. It was a game a lot of people wanted to see."

Four minutes in, the Panthers led 11-2, and the Crusaders were having problems even bringing the ball across midcourt.

Every MC pass seemed like it had to go through a forest of waving arms. And half the time, it didn't make it through.

The St. Mary's defense picked up the MC guards with about three-quarters of the court to go. They chased and fronted, looking for the charge. And they let Crusaders dribblers go past, slapping the ball away from behind.

It was a physical defense Porter questioned at times. He felt his players didn't quite get the benefit of the hand-check.

"The officials allowed them to ride us all night," Porter said. "It took us out of our game."

As they had for the entire season, the Crusaders leaned on their stars. This year's MC team, perhaps more than any other, was defined by its superstars: Reeves Nelson and D.J. Seeley.

Nelson, a junior forward, scored 27 points, three away from the Division IV record. He tied two Division IV records with 17 rebounds and 12 made field goals. Seeley, a senior guard playing in his last game before moving on to Cal, scored 18 points.

The 6-foot-7 Nelson opened the game in spectacular fashion with an offensive rebound and dunk. He added four more dunks in the second half.

And Seeley was just as dangerous with his vision as his shooting. He made two of the best passes of the night in succession, toward the end of the first half. Both of them were behind-the-back line drives to teammates in full stride. One was converted into a Nelson dunk, the other a Daniel Lemburg layup.

But they were countered by the swarming physical defense of the Panthers.

Too many times the Crusaders had a ball slapped away and converted into a layup on the other end. And too many times Nelson and Seeley couldn't free themselves up enough to get in a groove.

It was a marked difference from MC's last four Division V NorCal championships -- all of them against methodical Branson of Ross. But the result, like the last three, was the same, an MC loss.

"The score's a lot different this time," said Porter, who saw his team win a NorCal title over Eastside Prep 39-38 in 2003. "But we'll take being among the top four teams in California. And we'll keep coming back."

Twelve combined dunks. Eleven steals by the Panthers. Twenty-two offensive rebounds by the Crusaders. And an average of two out-of-your-seat special plays a minute.

We can only hope that, next year, St. Mary's is waiting for MC again.

Staff writer Will DeBoard can be reached at or call 578-2300.

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