The Western Athletic Conference triple round-robin format ensures that Central Catholic and Livingston will meet on the hardwood three times this season.
While the outcomes of the games are anybody's guess, the given in all three matchups was that the Raiders would have to overcome the Wolves' significant advantage at the guard spots to have a chance.
Not so fast.
On Tuesday, it was Central's guards handling the pressure, setting the tempo and carrying more than their expected share of the scoring load in the Raiders' 68-57 victory.
Central Catholic's win, coupled with Hilmar's 49-28 victory over Orestimba, sets up Friday's Raiders-Yellowjackets showdown for first place in the WAC. Both teams will carry 7-1 conference records into the game, which will be played at Central's tiny gym.
"Now we approach Hilmar and adjusting to the mistakes we made last time and taking care of business with them," said coach Mike Wilson, whose Raiders lost at Hilmar 59-48 on Jan. 15.
The Raiders are 16-4 overall, while Livingston fell to 14-5 overall and 5-3 in WAC play, with two of those losses coming at the hands of Central Catholic.
"We got outplayed," said Livingston coach Angelo Naldi. "The pressure wasn't there, the denial wasn't there."
It showed in the boxscore, where Dan Hulst controlled matters inside with 14 points and 18 rebounds, but the balance in the scoring from the guards kept Livingston from running to the ball.
Senior wings Liam Smith and Matt Shinkwin had 10 points apiece for the Raiders, junior guard Anthony Alamo added 12 points, and sophomore guard Ky Wilson had seven points and seven assists.
Still, Livingston looked poised to run away early, getting 10 first-quarter points from Darrell Jantz to take a 17-9 lead after eight minutes. The Wolves gained the lead by being patient on offense — scoring on the fast break when it was there, but pulling the ball out and working the perimeter when the easy basket didn't present itself.
Just as quickly as the lead came, Livingston lost its patience, which played right into the hands of the Raiders.
Five different Central Catholic players scored in a 17-4 run over the last four minutes of the first half, turning that eight-point deficit into a 32-27 halftime lead.
"We got that eight-point lead and went away from what we did to get the lead," Naldi said. "We're making mistakes, and I could understand it if we were all juniors. But it's the seniors making the mistakes."
The Raiders opened the second half on a 6-1 run to take their first 10-point lead, and Livingston never again got closer than five points the rest of the way.
Jantz and Gurpreet Sangha finished with 13 points apiece, while Chris Modi and Charles Brown added 11.
Livingston's fast start this season was built on full-court pressure, forcing turnovers and turning those bobbles into quick points at the other end.
But in this game, while Central Catholic committed 20 turnovers, very few of them came in the backcourt. The best barometer of how well the Raiders controlled the tempo was that the Wolves scored only 12 fast-break points.
"The turnovers were more on passes, trying to get the ball inside rather than in losing the ball and being scared," Wilson said. "The confidence level of the kids is coming up."
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at 578-2300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.