The way the Sac-Joaquin Section structures its playoffs, the second round becomes the trap game.
There’s so much at stake. Lose and your season is over. Win and you not only move into the neutral-court rounds of the tournament, but you’ve earned a virtual do-over with a berth in the NorCal regionals in hand.
Programs with state-level aspirations, such as Modesto Christian, not only point toward this round, but find a way to flourish in it, as the Crusaders did Thursday night with a 78-47 victory over Bethel of Vallejo.
“It’s without a doubt the scary round because after you win this one, you get the break of knowing that even if you lose you’ll go on,” said MC coach Robb Spencer. “It’s bigger than the first round.”
The Crusaders, 25-4 and defending state champions in Division III and now the top seed in Division II, advanced to Tuesday’s section semifinal against Del Oro at the University of the Pacific. Del Oro beat Whitney 53-29. Kimball and Antelope will play in the other semifinal, with start times to be determined Friday.
When Modesto Christian started slowly against the Jaguars (20-8), it looked as though perhaps they had run into the second-round jitters. They had only five assists in the opening 16 minutes, and when Bethel’s Dyemond Mitchell got inside for a three-point play with 6:33 left in the third quarter, the Jags were within 31-24.
“We definitely did start slow, but coming into the game Robb prepared us and told us we could be one of those teams that gets upset,” said Fresno State-bound senior Candice White, who led all players with 22 points. “But we worked so hard with morning practices and late practices. We knew that if we played as a team and didn’t play selfish that we could get through this. We had to pass the ball, and that’s what we started to do in the second half.”
The three-point play served as a wake-up call, as Modesto Christian rose to play an inspired 2 minutes, 56 seconds – long enough to blitz Bethel on a 17-0 run. The Jaguars committed five turnovers against the Crusaders press in the spurt, and all five were converted into points.
“We just took care of the little things,” Spencer said. “We weren’t hitting shots, and then when we started moving the ball better in the third quarter, that’s the kind of thing that can happen for us in the blink of an eye.”
Just that quickly, the 31-24 lead became 48-24, and the margin grew as large as 34 points in the final four minutes as both teams took the opportunity to get some playoff experience for players who spent the whole season at the junior varsity level.
Natalie LaTour added 15 points and Meagan Warwick 11 for MC, while guard Serena Santos paced Bethel with 11 points.
And now it should get tough for the Crusaders. The combined win-loss record of the three teams they’ll join in the semifinals is 79-6. While MC won’t be looking past the section championships, it’s gunning for nothing less than a back-to-back state crown.
“It’s kinda like last year never happened and we want to do it again,” White said. “We know what it takes and Robb knows what it takes. He keeps reminding us of how hard we have to play and that we have bulls-eyes on our backs every night.”