LODI — This wasn't the ending Reeves Nelson had anticipated, not after four spectacular years of playing power forward for Modesto Christian.
But the 6-foot-8-inch senior could only watch as Vista del Lago prepared to fire a potential, game-winning 3-pointer.
That shot never took flight, though, thanks to the aggressive defense and quick hands of 6-4 junior Marcus Butler. He stole a pass at midcourt and then hit two free throws with 4.6 seconds left Wednesday to secure MC's 64-60 win in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV semifinal at Tokay.
"It's the first time I've been at the line knowing we could win or lose depending on my shots," said Butler, who's shooting 65 percent at the line.
When he hit the second free throw, you could hear a sigh of relief from the MC crowd.
"There are very high expectations on us and people want us to win by 30 or 40 every time," MC coach Gary Porter said. "That doesn't happen."
Whether by 40 or four, the victory sends MC (21-8) to Saturday's final and keeps alive its bid for a record 10th consecutive title. MC tips off at 3:30 p.m. against the winner of Christian Brothers (21-6) and San Juan (26-4) at Arco Arena in Sacramento.
It was the 15th consecutive section playoff win for Nelson — and his closest yet.
"You've gotta have the confidence in your teammates," said Nelson, one of four Crusaders to score in double figures. "We were off our game, but we'll be ready Saturday."
The Eagles (21-9) had tied it at 52 early in the fourth quarter by outhustling the Crusaders on the boards and exploiting MC's poor shot selection.
That's when Nelson set up behind the 3-point line, took a pass from point guard Isaiah Burse and hit a trey to give MC a lead it never gave up.
Not that it didn't stay close.
Vista got within 61-60 on Hayden Lescault's 3-pointer with 45 seconds left, rainbowing it over the outstretched arms of 6-4 Johnny Hutton.
Nelson hit the front end of a one-and-one to make it 62-60 with 20 seconds left, but Vista gained possession on a jump ball and hustled across halfcourt before calling time out.
MC trapped the ball at halfcourt and Butler, with 8 seconds left, flicked the ball into the backcourt. He chased it down and was fouled, then hit his free throws.
"We practiced that trap all week and I knew he'd be looking that way," said Butler, who had 13 points. "Winning, that's what matters. Not by how much, just winning it."
Vista held Nelson the way no team has, triple-teaming the UCLA-bound star inside.
The defense didn't surprise Porter, but MC's reaction did.
"Our plan was to go inside, then outside," he said. "Get it to Reeves, and when they collapse on him, he gets it back outside for an open shot."
Too often, though, the Crusaders fired without even trying to get the ball to Nelson.
That's a mistake that won't be repeated, Porter promised: "We'll get this worked out and be ready for Saturday."