TURLOCK -- Rachel Finnegan enjoys zipping up and down the court with the ball, pushing for a faster tempo even if it occasionally will break down into anarchy.
"My style is probably closest to Steve Nash, because I like to push the tempo and see how much we can take," Turlock High's point guard said of the Phoenix Suns guard. "I know there are times I should slow it down, but the transition game we use is just too exciting."
It's also effective, which is why Turlock is challenging for its first conference title since 1982.
Turlock (20-4), The Bee's No. 2-ranked large-school team, shares first place in the Central California Conference and plays host to co-leader Merced on Thursday.
Merced beat the Bulldogs 59-53 three weeks ago, Turlock's only loss in its last 14 games. Turlock started slow, Finnegan recalled, a mistake it can't afford to make this time.
"The way we played the second half against Merced, that's going to give us confidence," Finnegan said. "If we get a transition game going early, that will be a key."
The ability to quickly get the ball from the rebounder to Finnegan is why Turlock averages 50 points a game, sixth among the Stanislaus District's 47 teams.
Samantha Bertomen is another reason the Bulldogs are able to turn the fast break into points.
The 5-foot-9-inch forward averages 16.6 points, often exploiting open-court situations for short jumpers and swinging between the post and guard when Turlock runs its half-court offense.
"A lot of my shots are right off of Rachel's passes, because she's got a way of finding you if you're open," said Bertomen, who averages 21 points in the CCC. "Rachel is really good in the open court."
Finnegan averages a district-high 5.5 assists and had a career-high 12 in last week's 58-37 win over Los Banos. She also had 13 points and 10 rebounds to record the first triple-double since coach Salinda Mabie arrived five years ago.
"Rachel is a natural," said Mabie, who had her playing varsity as a freshman. "(She) has court awareness and knowledge that is unseen (in) many guards."
There is a link between the last title and this season's team of Bulldogs -- the mother of freshman forward Natalie Dykzeul played on the '82 team.
Twenty wins and a shot at the crown far surpass the goals the Bulldogs set for themselves.
"With ... five underclassmen, winning 20 games was not necessarily the goal," said Mabie, whose 'Dogs were 12-14 last season. "Our goal was to finish in the top three in league, make playoffs and go past the first round."
Having secured a top-three finish and playoff berth, the focus has shifted to snapping a 25-year title drought and securing a playoff game at home. The Bulldogs are No. 3 in the Sac-Joaquin Section power ratings, and the top eight teams are hosting openers.
Turlock's last playoff trip was in 2006, when it lost at Vallejo 54-35. Bertomen and Finnegan were on that team and said it will motivate them the next two weeks.
"It's a big advantage, being at home, because you're not taking that long trip and all your people are there," Bertomen said. "It's a disadvantage to travel and have to play a good team. We want someone else to do it this time."
Bee staff writer Richard T. Estrada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2300.