RIPON — The accomplishment was undeniable; the reaction appropriate.
For the third time in the last eight years, the Modesto Christian girls basketball team will be going to a Northern California Division IV title game, thanks to Thursday's 55-41 win over Marin Catholic before about 1,500 fans at Ripon High.
But there was something missing. It wasn't there when the team came off the court, and it was absent when the Crusaders and Wildcats exchanged post-game handshakes.
It wasn't until well-wishers — friends and family — began congratulating the Crusaders on reaching the penultimate contest that a few smiles emerged.
Even then, they weren't the relaxed ear-to-ear smiles of a team celebrating a job well-done, they were the tenuous "thanks for the support" grins of a team happy to win, yet underwhelmed by its own performance.
And have no doubt — Modesto Christian played far from its best game in the victory. The Crusaders' effort was punctuated by 13 missed open layups and a stunning, uncharacteristic lack of killer instinct at the moment the game should have been put away.
It was a survival performance at best, but the task was completed. MC (26-7) will be going to Folsom on Saturday to play St. Mary's of Berkeley in a 5 p.m. showdown for the right to play for a state title. St. Mary's defeated Linden 71-37 on Thursday for its spot in the NorCal final.
"They know we played ugly," said Crusaders coach Robb Spencer. "There was a stretch where we went up by 20 points and self-destructed."
In Modesto Christian's best run of the game, they held the Wildcats (25-8) scoreless for a 5-minute, 17-second stretch of the third quarter and scored at will in a 16-0 run that produced a 43-19 lead.
Brandi Henton scored six in the spurt — twice going coast-to-coast for layups — and Lauren Lucchesi had five points as the Crusaders took complete control.
And just as quickly lost it.
The MC defense that had completely shut down Marin's perimeter game suddenly stopped getting out to guard the Wildcats' shooters. Marin, which had only one 3-pointer through three quarters, hit three in a row to punctuate a 13-0 run.
The blowout-in-waiting became an 11-point game, 43-32, with 3:31 to go.
"Everybody got frustrated," Spencer said. "We missed some layups, missed some free throws. and everybody tried to step up to say 'I'll do it,' and we can't work that way."
Lucchesi got inside for a basket, then followed a teammate's miss with a put-back for a 47-32 lead, and the Crusaders began to breathe again. Henton and Lucchesi had 15 each for Modesto, with Lucchesi grabbing 11 rebounds. Taryn Garza didn't score but grabbed 13 rebounds.
"I think we just lost focus," Spencer said. "It happens to the best of teams, but hey, we're going to the NorCal championship."
GIRLS GAME OUTLOOK
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Modesto Christian's 5-11 Lauren Lucchesi, who had 15 points and 11 rebounds. She was 6 of 12 from the floor and 3 of 4 from the line, scoring 13 in the second half as MC began to pull away. Her inside presence, combined with 5-11 Taryn Garza (13 rebounds, four blocks) allowed the Crusaders to dominate the key.
MC went on a 16-0 run in the third quarter, turning a 27-19 lead into a 43-19 advantage. MC held Marin scoreless for 5:17 in the third quarter. PG Brandi Henton scored six in the third and Lucchesi provided another seven points.
Marin Catholic coach Rick DeMartini didn't call a timeout in the third quarter, allowing MC to take control. The Wildcats were clearly out of sync, and by the time they got things sorted out, MC had built a 20-point lead.
Marin Catholic never was able to generate an inside attack, and it forced the Wildcats to cast away from the perimeter. That strategy failed miserably, as Marin shot 15 of 48 from the floor. Five of its six treys came in the fourth quarter, when it trailed by 20.
THE HUSTLE AWARD
Modesto Christian forward Taryn Garza didn't score, but showed her value to the team with 13 rebounds and two blocks. She showed her physical side by challenging rough-and-tumble, 5-11 forward Melissa Wise, whose rough-looking buzzcut fit her personality.
— Richard T. Estrada