SALIDA — It didn't matter how fast Alexus Tillman was going Tuesday night, she never took her eyes off the action taking place in front of her.
Whether Modesto Christian High's junior point guard was taking an outlet pass or already heading upcourt, she was always looking to make the pass.
"She's something special," MC coach Robb Spencer said. "She has great vision and she is always looking to push it. She's given us another good weapon."
Tillman didn't do much scoring — a 3-pointer was all — but her leadership on the floor was evident in MC's 72-29 win over Orestimba to open the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV playoffs.
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A reserve for Division III state champion St. Mary's of Stockton last season, Tillman transferred to MC during the summer and debuted in early January.
"She had been practicing with us every day since the start of school, and Alexus was on the bench cheering us on every game," Spencer said. "The other girls saw the work she was putting in, so we didn't have any conflicts over playing time when she became eligible."
With Tillman handling the bulk of the ballhanding and running the offense at the top of the key, Brandi Henton was free to roam the wings and penetrate.
The Long Beach State-bound Henton took advantage of the freedom to score 24 points. She hit three treys in the first quarter, helping MC (24-4) to a 23-5 lead.
The win sends the defending section champions into Thursday's quarterfinal against Linden — a rematch of the 2008 section final that was won by MC.
No. 8 seed Linden (20-8) advanced by beating No. 9 Vacaville Christian 51-43. The Lions will travel to face the top-seeded Crusaders, who have 15 of their last 17. The losses were to St. Mary's and Sacramento, state-ranked D- III teams.
"I like the direction we're headed right now, playing good defense and doing a good with our traps," said Spencer, whose club reached the state championship game last year. "I still want more, and I'm constantly reminding the girls of that. Nothing is guaranteed in life."
The Crusaders, who returned the bulk of last year's squad, took another step up in talent with Tillman took the floor.
"You can't zero in on Brandi, because Alexus will take advantage of that," said Spencer, noting Tillman also had four assists, four steals and a blocked shot. "Pay too much attention to Alexus, and then you've got Brandi to worry about."
MC took control in the opening minutes by forcing turnovers with a half-court trap, pressuring Orestimba (17-11) as soon as the ball came in.
Three times in the opening quarter, Tillman fired a long pass — a crisp toss that sailed over the outstretched arms of defenders — that a teammate was able to turn into a layup.
"With the best point guards, it's like the game is moving at a slower speed and they're able to see so much more of it," said Spencer, quick to add that off-guard Marinna McKeever also had four assists. "The majority of guards at this level are looking at the ball or looking right in front of them when they're dribbling, so Alexus' ability gives us a big edge."
Tillman's presence fills a void from last season, when Henton often directed the offense and was expected to provide plenty of scoring, too.
On those rare instances when the Crusaders missed, Taryn Garza, Valerie Moore and Danielle Thompson were usually there to put it in.
The Crusaders' front line combined for 43 points, with Garza grabbing 14 rebounds and Moore getting 10. Moore, who saw considerable playing time last year as a freshman, also had four assists.
The 5-foot-11 Garza flashed to the high post numerous times in the first half, taking a pass and holding the ball high as she looked for teammates cutting to the basket.
As the defense came up to defend Garza, who is capable of hitting a jumper from the free-throw line, she had a good view of the court.
"It's always been part of the offense, but Taryn's been doing more of that with the ball and it's creating opportunities for us," Spencer said. "It was one of the things I was happy with tonight."