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Crusader girls go cold in first half as sharp-shooting Branson prevails

KENTFIELD — Modesto Christian blinked.

And in about the time it took the Lady Crusaders to reopen their eyes, Saturday night's Northern California Division IV semifinal game had slipped away.

Top-seeded Branson hit its first five shots and scored on its first eight possessions to build a 15-point lead in the opening 4 minutes, 10 seconds, and breezed ahead to a 50-23 victory at College of Marin.

The first-quarter blitz was so decisive it completely took the steam out of the Crusaders, who had their 22-game win streak snapped and finished the season 27-6. Branson (31-3) will take a 29-game win streak into next Saturday's regional final at San Joaquin Delta College.

"We never doubted that we could come in here and defeat this team," said MC senior post Andrea Hernandez. "They just came out hot and we came out heartless. I think some of our players didn't realize what it would take to win this game."

MC committed 19 turnovers and never established any kind of offensive flow. The Bulls' defense effectively cut off all inside passing lanes and almost completely eliminated the Crusaders' post game.

"If you had seen our intensity in practice this week you would have seen this kind of performance coming," said Branson coach Mike Fulton. "That was a good team, a very good team, and we completely dismantled them.

"This was a statement for us. We knew Modesto Christian was very capable of playing with us, but the first quarter was our best of the year and it took the heart out of them."

Branson had a 6-0 lead before MC got off its first shot, a 9-0 lead before the Crusaders hit the rim and an 11-0 lead before Queen Willard's 3-point shot with 2:38 elapsed got MC on the board.

But by the time the Bulls had an unfruitful possession, they had built an 18-3 lead and already were showing signs of putting the game into cruise control.

"They were hitting everything," said MC coach Robb Spencer. "They made a ton of shots and we had a lot of turnovers. I'll take the blame for that. I didn't prepare them well enough."

Branson built a 31-9 lead by halftime, which presented MC with a character-challenging moment. Spencer kept the team in the locker room until just before it was time to take the floor.

And when the Crusaders came back into the gym, they did so with relaxed smiles to accept the cheers of the more than 200 MC fans who had made the drive to Marin County. The Crusaders responded with their best quarter, holding the Bulls to nine points, but there would be no rally.

"I wish we could have started the game like that," Spencer said. "We were getting the stops on defense, but we couldn't score."

Branson was led by the Bilney sisters, both juniors, with Rachel Bilney getting 16 points and Sam Bilney 15.

Willard had seven points to pace MC. She was one of seven seniors on the Crusaders' roster who found this final defeat difficult to swallow.

"We weren't ready to be done," Hernandez said. "We're still not ready."

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