SALIDA — The Modesto Christian High boys basketball team is going to play St. Mary's of Berkeley again.
Only this time it'll be in the cozy confines of Modesto Christian's own gymnasium.
The Crusaders stormed into the CIF Northern California Division IV semifinals after Tuesday night's 81-44 first-round victory over Corning.
Modesto Christian (23-8) will play the Panthers of St. Mary's — they beat Menlo 60-45 in their first-round game — on Thursday at MC. St. Mary's beat the Crusaders in last year's Northern California Championship game at Folsom.
This year, the game is for a berth in the NorCal final at Folsom High.
But first came the formalities of the first round.
The Crusaders scored the game's first six points, their pressure defense never allowing the Cardinals to get into any sort of flow. Modesto Christian opened the game up early, scoring 13 consecutive points in a two-minute stretch late in the quarter. That run was capped by a blocked shot at the top of the key and big dunk by Crusaders forward Reeves Nelson (14 points).
Modesto Christian led 23-6 after the first quarter, and 40-16 at the half.
"It's a nice time to be peaking," MC coach Gary Porter said. "The kids are starting to get hungry."
Tuesday, they were led by senior forward Johnny Hutton. Several times, Nelson drew attention to himself with a drive to the middle, then kicking it out to Hutton, who made the baseline jumper. Nelson also had one of the night's more spectacular moments in the third quarter, when he broke free down the right sideline, moving to the hoop and slamming it home with a two-handed jam.
While Hutton and Nelson had the big numbers, every MC player seemed to score points.
"I think we're playing really well right now," Hutton said. "We've come a long way since the Holiday Hoops Classic."
This team has come a long way from its Sac-Joaquin Section semifinal game against Vista del Lago, a 64-60 Crusaders victory that went down to the wire.
"They kind of woke up after that," Porter said. "And all of a sudden, they realized they could win games."
Since then, MC has played very well, and Corning — which was led by post player Javier Piseno's 10 points — couldn't compete.
When it wasn't Hutton or Nelson, it was guard Isaiah Burse. The quick guard had several steals in the passing lanes while scoring 10 points.
Every Crusaders starter will be needed on Thursday, when St. Mary's and MC will tip off at 7:30 in front of what promises to be a capacity crowd. The Crusaders girls team plays Marin Catholic at 6 p.m. on Thursday.
Tuesday, the doors were closed by halftime of the earlier girls playoff game.
"The last four teams are extremely good," Porter said. "We know St. Mary's will be bringing a good game.
"It may come down to who wants it more."
It starts on Thursday.
Bee staff writer Will DeBoard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2300.