The longest month any basketball team could imagine finally came to an end Thursday night at Modesto Junior College.
Exactly one month after seeing teammate Hershal Phillips collapse and later die of a heart attack, and seven games on the road, the Pirate men finally got a home game -- in the opening round of the 71st MJC Basketball Tournament.
The game itself wasn't much to see, as the Pirates pounded Columbia 82-58. But the second half was special, as guard Fred Battee -- who came to California with Phillips, his high school teammate -- scored 19 of his game-high 21 and the crowd, very much aware of the situation, cheered his every move.
"It's been hard this last month and especially hard to focus those first could couple of games after it happened, just thinking about him," Battee said. "But you have to take that and turn it into motivation and come out here and play well."
The margin of victory allowed coach Paul Brogan to give everybody a chance to play.
Sam Yeager played about 16 minutes and scored 20, including 14 in the opening 20 minutes as MJC rolled to a 34-17 halftime lead.
All that rest will come into play tonight when the Pirates (5-3) meet Fresno City, 12-0 and ranked No. 1 in the state, in the second round.
Battee and Brogan travelled back to New Jersey for Phillips' funeral, with Battee remaining home for a few days with the team's blessing.
He certainly would have been forgiven had he chosen not to return to the Golden State.
"I worry about Fred, but the closeness of this team has helped the healing process for him," Brogan said. "I was excited when he came back and all the guys were happy to see him. He's the same kind of outstanding young man that Hershal was."
Battee said it was an easy decision.
"I was never going to leave the team," he said. "I love it here and I love my teammates and the coaches. It made it so easy to come back."
Modesto, which got 10 points from Nick Storment, led by as much as 30 points in he second half. Columbia (1-7) got 14 points from Jared Lansford and 12 from Mike McElroy.
"Tonight showed that everybody can play and everybody is ready to step up," Battee said. "Everybody wants their chance and I was happy to get mine tonight."
In other first-round games, Delta (9-1) pulled away to defeat San Francisco City 86-69, Siskyous (10-5) got hot in the second half in an 80-74 victory over Sequoias, and Fresno City rolled past Chabot 97-80.
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2300.