Sean Lynch: Fresno game still matters to Lady Devils

02/21/2009 1:38 AM

02/21/2009 1:43 AM

It's certainly not the circumstances under which Allen Huddleston thought his team would be heading down to Fresno City tonight.

The two best teams in the Central Valley Conference were supposed to be squaring off with the conference title on the line.

Wednesday's shocking 59-51 loss to Reedley changed all that for Huddleston's Merced College women's basketball team.

"Maybe it was a case of looking ahead a little bit and not focusing on what was at hand," sophomore point guard Keyona McKibbens said. "Winning a conference title was something that was really important to us.

"Now that it's gone, we just need to concentrate on getting ready for the playoffs."

While the CVC title may no longer be up for grabs, expect Saturday's contest to have a championship feel.

Fresno City and MC don't like each other in any sport, but the contempt is particularly evident on the women's basketball court.

The teams' first encounter was as physical and intense as any either has likely played this season.

NorCal No. 3 Fresno City opened with a haymaker that made MC stagger.

The Rams' unrelenting offensive strategy of driving to the basket every time down the court had the Lady Devils on the ropes in the first half.

Huddleston countered.

The MC coach had his team shorten the game in the second half. That combined with an improved defensive effort helped the Lady Devils whittle away the Rams' lead.

MC took its first lead of the game with 11:46 to play. That's when Fresno showed why it's the champs.

The Rams kicked it into another gear and left MC in their wake.

The Lady Devils managed just four points in the last 10 minutes and Fresno came away with a 60-51 victory.

Huddleston hopes the lessons learned from that game hit home with his team.

"It's very hard to recreate what they do in practice ," Huddleston said. "It was good for our girls to see the kind of intensity you have to have to compete with the best teams in the state.

"We were very slow to move our feet defensively the first time. I think we'll be much better prepared for them this time."

Huddleston said MC is pretty well locked into the 12 seed heading into the playoffs.

Even a victory over Northern California's third ranked team isn't likely to change that.

It doesn't, however, mean that there won't be plenty on the line.

Aside from not wanting to enter the payoffs having dropped consecutive contests, the Lady Devils could use the confidence.

Huddleston's squad has faced plenty of ranked opponents throughout the year, but its last meaningful victory came against No. 4 Sierra on Dec. 7.

"There's no doubt that Fresno is one of the best teams in the state," Huddleston said. "A victory over them would be huge for our confidence."

Still, Huddleston acknowledges how difficult a task winning at Fresno will be.

The Rams have won 12 games in a row and are undefeated at home this season.

Fresno has averaged over 74 points per game during its current streak.

In contrast, MC has only scored 74 points or better six times this season.

As is usually the case, the Lady Devils' defense will be the key.

"We have to stop penetration," McKibbens said. "That's all there is to it.

"Other than that, we just have to play our game .

"We didn't do it against Reedley and it cost us. We did it in the second half against Fresno the first time and it worked pretty well."

Sean Lynch is a Sun-Star sports writer. He can be reached at 385-2476 or via e-mail at slynch@mercedsun-star.com.

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