For the first half of Tuesday’s Sac-Joaquin Section Division II girls basketball semifinal, it might be a bit of a stretch to say that Del Oro (Loomis) looked more like a defending section and state champion, but it sure wouldn’t be to say that Modesto Christian looked like anything but.
The Crusaders, who won both the section and state titles in Division III last season, needed a strong second-half effort to defeat the Golden Eagles 63-48 and advance to a section championship game for a second consecutive season.
“The intensity we had to start the third quarter is what we needed to start the game,” said Modesto Christian coach Robb Spencer, whose top-seeded Crusaders improve to 26-4 and will play No. 3 Kimball (30-0) on Saturday at 1 p.m. at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento. The Jaguars defeated No. 2 Antelope (26-2) 59-49.
“We knew coming in it wasn’t going to be easy.”
Spencer also knew that Del Oro wasn’t going to be intimidated by the Cruaders’ bona fides.
The Golden Eagles (23-6) play in the Sierra Foothill League, and their only league losses this year came to powerful Oak Ridge, the No. 2 seed in the Division I bracket.
“Robb told us that right off the bat,” said senior captain Candice White, who scored 20 points – 13 in the second half – in 30 minutes of work. “He told us, ‘This team is not scared of you.’ ”
Del Oro certainly never looked intimidated, especially in the first half when it jumped out to a 27-21 halftime advantage.
Del Oro’s height advantage frustrated the Crusaders – 6-foot-0 Lauren Heyn (22 points, 13 rebounds) and 5-11 Hannah Jordan (17 points, 13 rebounds) gobbled up rebounds and were unstoppable inside during the first 16 minutes.
“They were a little tall,” said MC’s junior forward Lailoni Gaines, who grabbed a team-high seven rebounds, six coming in the second half. “A little too tall for me.”
Besides the Golden Eagles’ height advantage, their guards did not seemed fazed by the Crusaders’ full-court pressure.
“We weren’t applying enough pressure when the ball came in,” said White. “That left the middle wide open and their post would pass it and go. She’d get it right back.”
That led to a lot of easy buckets for the Golden Eagles, who qualify for the Northern California regional tournament by virtue of reaching the semifinals.
Spencer challenged his team at the intermission and liked the way they responded.
“I told them, ‘You’ve been punched in the face … now what are you going to do?’ ” said Spencer. “They came out harder, which is a trait of this team.”
Modesto Christian opened the second half on a 13-2 run and led 34-29 after a bucket by Natalie LaTour, who scored nine of her 12 points in the second half.
Del Oro would recapture the lead on a put-back by Jordan with about 10 seconds left in third, but White nailed a three-pointer at the buzzer to give MC a 40-38 cushion heading into the fourth.
The Crusaders would not trail again.
LaTour opened the stanza with a driving layup, then another driving layup, plus a free throw, gave MC a 48-42 lead. A turnaround jumper by LaTour with 5:12 to play made it 50-42 and all seemed right for the Crusaders.
However, the Golden Eagles ran off six unanswered points to make it 50-48, but an Ashley Lucas three-ball stretched the lead back to five.
From there, MC’s defense did the rest, holding Del Oro scoreless over the game’s final 3:19.
“No. 21 (Jordan) and No. 33 (Heyn), we should know their names by now,” said Spencer. “Those are two great players, you can’t take anything away from them, but once we contained them, we were OK.”