Being the newest member of the Big Eight Conference has created a brand new competitive challenge for the basketball teams at Modesto Junior College.
Heading into Tuesday night's full schedule of conference openers, the Big Eight had five of the top 15 teams in the Northern California women's rankings, and four of the top 10 on the men's side.
If the Pirates weren't aware of that before Tuesday, they are now, after Sierra College left MJC with a sweep in hand.
After the Pirate women dropped a 64-54 decision to the Wolverines, ranked No. 4 in Northern California, Sierra's men stunned MJC 85-82 in the nightcap.
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The Pirates are doing their part by adding to the depth of quality teams in the Big Eight. MJC entered Tuesday ranked No. 12 in the northern region on the women's side and No. 10 on the men's side. The Wolverine men, now 8-9, are one of only three teams in the conference with a losing record.
"My team had a mindset that this was going to be an easy win, and I told them before the game that if they were thinking it was going to be easy, they would be sadly mistaken," said MJC coach Paul Brogan. "They proved me right."
There were 50 fouls called in the choppy game, and MJC allowed a 10-point lead to slip away against Sierra's clawed press and platoon substitution pattern. The Pirates still led 77-74 with 2:55 remaining before going silent for two minutes. Seven straight points by Wolverine sophomore Brandon Coleman -- the last three on a long-range jumper with 46 seconds left -- gave Sierra an 81-77 lead.
Modesto had to foul to get back in the game, and had one last possession with 12.2 seconds left, needing a 3-pointer to send the game into overtime. But the Wolverines took care of the perimeter, and the Pirates never got off a shot.
Haven Piatt led Sierra with 23 points, while Eleazar Jones had 20 for MJC and Elliott Barker and Marvin Jefferson had 17 apiece.
"You have a team coming into your gym with a losing record, and those are games you have to win," Brogan said. "We let them come in and outhustle us on our home court in front of our own fans."
There are other differences between the Big Eight and the Central Valley Conference, mainly cosmetic. Big Eight games are played on Tuesday and Friday after years of Wednesday-Saturday games in the CVC. And every game night now features a men's and women's doubleheader -- a rarity in the CVC.
The Pirate women (11-7) already were familiar with Sierra, having dropped an 80-60 decision to the Wolverines (15-4) on Nov. 30. In that game, Sierra guard Tamar Gruwell drilled a state-record 12 3-pointers en route to a school-record 45 points.
"We played a lot of man-to-man defense in that game, and have been playing our zone a lot better since then," MJC coach Mike Girardi said.
Modesto's zone kept Gruwell in check. She missed her first five 3-point attempts, but still finished with 12 points to tie for game high-scoring honors. Kacey Ball led MJC with 11 points and added six steals.
The Pirates had their chance to pull out the victory, trailing 50-49 with 4:30 remaining. But two quick turnovers against the Wolverines' press fueled a decisive 10-0 Sierra run.
"I thought they just outhustled us for rebounds and loose balls in the second half," Girardi said. "Our girls just have to be tougher down the stretch in close games and do the things necessary to win. Night-in and night-out, we'll be facing a tough team."
That's life in the Big Eight.
Brian VanderBeek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2300.