STOCKTON -- It's become a kind of an inside joke.
If the Merced College women's basketball team plays its usual defense and makes its lay-ups, it can beat anybody.
Lakeya Sears and Jhinnae Clark can only laugh about it and shrug when asked.
The sophomore guards chuckle, but get no enjoyment out of it.
The laughter is a coping mechanism.
Getting the ball into the basket -- and more specifically making lay-ups -- has been a problem for the Lady Devils most of the season.
MC has averaged just over 67 shots a game, but only made about 22 of them.
That translates into a 34 percent shooting clip for the season.
It's a statistic that's particularly disheartening to coach Allen Huddleston, mostly because of the open looks the Lady Devils' speed regularly creates.
And no game may have showcased those frustrations more than a December loss to Northern California No. 5 San Joaquin Delta College (28-6).
That's the very same team MC will visit in tonight's first-round NorCal Regional.
Tip-off is set for 5 p.m.
"We learned the first time that they have trouble with our speed," Huddleston said. "We have kids who can get open looks, but they have to knock them down.
"We had all kinds of chances the first time we played them, but we missed a bunch of easy baskets."
MC held Delta to 59 points -- its third lowest total of the season -- but could only manage a 16-for-79 offensive response.
Huddleston said Sears and Clark could hold the key.
"They have to be able to hold onto the ball and finish shots," Huddleston said. "We'll get our chances. We need to finish them off."
The two sophomores insist they're poised for the challenge.
"We just played weak against them last time," Sears said. "We need to be a lot more physical."
"We're confident," Clark added. "We know we're good enough to beat anybody.
"Everyone just has to show up to play for the whole 40 minutes."
Knocking down a few shots wouldn't hurt, either.
Sean Lynch is a Sun-Star sports writer. He can be reached at 385-2476 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
No 12. Merced (21-12) at No. 5 Delta (28-6)
WHERE: San Joaquin Delta College (Stockton)
WHEN: Today, 5 p.m.
LAST TIME: Delta defeated MC 59-49 at the end of December.
KEYS FOR MC: First-team All-CVC guard Kenyatta Harper (13 points, 11 rebounds) can't have a quite game. MC guards Lakeya Sears and Jhinnae Clark must take advantage of their quickness edge.
KEYS FOR DELTA: Delta launched almost 900 3-pointers in 34 games on the season. MC must keep a hand in shooter's faces. First-team All-State forward Lindsey Staffold (15.8 points, 9.5 rebounds) and third-team All-State guard Shauna Ridge (11.4 points) must fight through MC's suffocating defense.
-- Sean Lynch