SACRAMENTO -- At some point in this season, Modesto Christian High moved beyond its ragged start and became a team capable of winning another Sac-Joaquin Section title.
It wouldn't be a coincidence if that point coincided with the moment Isaiah Burse began to feel not like a state champion quarterback, but like a point guard.
The undeniable leader of the Crusaders wrote another chapter in his storied prep career on Saturday, scoring 29 points as Modesto Christian held off Colfax 88-80 for the Division 4 title, the school's 11th straight section crown.
"I still have some kinks to get out," said Burse, headed to Fresno State to play football. "I feel good now. I feel like a basketball player, but it takes a while. You think you're back and healthy, then something else pops up to hold you down."
There would be no holding down Burse and the Crusaders on this day, not even an athletic and tall Colfax squad that gave MC all it could handle on defense.
The Rams, the division's top seed, had extreme balance and placed five players in double figures while outrebounding MC 43-36. But the Crusaders were able to counter Colfax's size with depth, and when MC engaged the Rams in a running game, Colfax was bound to wear down.
"We were trying to make them move -- everywhere, on offense and defense," said MC coach Gary Porter, who will be hoisting the school's 13th section banner. "We ran well, and even ran sometimes when we shouldn't have, but it's hard to stop a racehorse."
But when was the moment MC dropped the blinders and began to run like a thoroughbred? Even after a 5-8 start that included losing all four games in its own tournament, the Crusaders couldn't count on the Trans-Valley League schedule to find their pace.
Porter went to a platoon system. It worked in league and even got them a win over Division 3 power Sacramento High. But when the Crusaders struggled in their semifinal win over Calaveras, the coach instinctively realized another adjustment had to be made, even though MC was carrying a 16-game win streak into Arco Arena.
So against Colfax, there was no platoon. The all-senior starting lineup was replaced by one with two seniors, two juniors and freshman guard Raymond Bowles. The platoon became an 11-man rotation that simply wore down Colfax.
"We're super-talented, but it was always something different that was wrong," Burse said. "We went to the five-man rotations and that started to work, but even then there was a feeling of every man for himself.
"We made the decision to go five-on-five in practice, and whoever goes hardest and is the best man for the spot gets the start. We jelled just like that, and that's why Raymond started today. He was a factor in practice."
This was nearly a dead-even game through three quarters. Colfax led 20-19 after one quarter, 39-38 at halftime, and the Crusaders got two free throws from Ryan Riner with less than a second left to lead 57-56 after three quarters.
MC's ploy to use depth to wear-down Colfax almost was undone by the unusual number of fouls called in the game. In all, there were 47 infractions whistled, and 63 free throws taken -- each one allowing the Rams a few precious seconds of rest.
But eventually the battle to maintain fresh legs became a battle of attrition for Colfax.
They lost a backup forward to fouls less than a minute into the fourth quarter, trailing only 59-58 at the time. They lost their 6-foot-9 center Ryan Salmonson (16 points, 14 rebounds) with 3:30 remaining and trailing 74-66. Their shooting guard followed a minute later, when they trailed by 11.
Even then, there was some life left in the Rams. Reserve guard Chase Mosier scored 10 of his team-high 21 points in the final two minutes, including a runner from the lane with 1:11 left that pulled Colfax within 81-78.
But Derek Evans, one of the juniors in this day's starting lineup, scored the next six points for Modesto Christian to keep Colfax from completing the rally. Anthony Pratt finished with 15 points and seven rebounds, Evans added 12 and Riner 10.
Both teams will play on in the NorCal regional. The MC boys and girls are likely to get first-round byes and could both host games on Thursday. Those brackets will be announced today.
Until then, MC has time to sit back and admire that 13th blue banner, and Burse has another few days to keep feeling more and more like a basketball player.
"It's hard for me to compare this team early to what they are now," Porter said. "It stretched me as a coach -- stretched all of us coaches. This is a great accomplishment for these young men. And it doesn't get old. When it does, I'm going to quit."
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2300.