SACRAMENTO -- Modesto Christian took advantage of an additional defender Saturday, using the sideline to slap a smothering trap on Linden and win its third Sac-Joaquin Section crown in four years.
"We pushed the ball to the sideline, then got right on top of them when they picked up the dribble," wing Stefani Agostini said. "The sideline just shut off their passing outlet."
Once the Crusaders had the ball trapped, they would continue to push in and use their long arms to create a cocoon.
That tactic allowed the Crusaders to pull away in the second half for a 57-40 win, earning their first Division IV title and a home opener in the Northern California playoffs.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Merced Sun-Star
MC (24-7) won D-V titles in 2006 and '07, but lost the D-IV final last year. That loss sent the Crusaders on the road for NorCal, forcing it to drive 700 miles for two playoff games.
Story continues below video
Coach Robb Spencer is looking forward to a home game.
"We want that 2 seed so we're at home Thursday, too," Spencer said. "With our body of work this season, it's an injustice if we're not the 2."
After swapping baskets for two quarters, MC intensified the pressure and opened the second half with a 21-9 run.
"We put Valerie Moore on top of the press and, with her long arms, she makes it difficult to get a pass around her," Spencer said. "In the second half, we did a better job of getting to the right spots, too."
The Lions, despite talented guards, threw a dozen passes away in the third quarter. MC had a role in that, though, playing in the face of the guards and forcing flustered forwards to bring the ball up.
The defense was needed, as MC's offense was sputtering.
Brandi Henton and Taryn Garza, who were averaging a combined 29 points a game, totaled just 11. They combined to make 4 of 27 from the floor.
"I just tried to work hard at everything else I was doing," said Garza, who set a championship-game record with 19 rebounds and played stifling defense. "A great thing with this team is that we always have people ready to step in."
Lauren Lucchesi, a 5-foot-11-inch forward and one of two seniors, provided the scoring punch with 15 points. She had 11 in the second half and her two free throws, following a steal, gave MC a 29-26 lead.
After Moore scored on a put-back, Henton drove the lane and lofted a running jumper to make it 33-26. With Linden beginning to wilt, MC scored three of its next four baskets on offensive rebounds for a 46-32 lead early in the fourth.
"The offense isn't always going to be there, but that's why we go hard on defense," said Henton, whose club allowed just 30 points in its semifinal.
MC forced Linden to shoot 13 of 47 from the floor. Linden was 3 of 20 from beyond the 3-point line, disastrous for a team averaging six a game.
"It's just the first step for us," Lucchesi said. "We want to get to state this season."
Bee staff writer Richard T. Estrada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2300.