FOLSOM -- The Folsom High gymnasium was still echoing with the joyous screams of St. Mary's High fans, after their girls basketball team had just thrown in a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from 25 feet away to force overtime in the NorCal championship game.
Modesto Christian High coach Robb Spencer told his players one thing in their huddle.
"This is the last four minutes," Spencer shouted over the din. "It's state, or go home."
Brandi Henton heard.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Merced Sun-Star
The junior point guard tossed in a 3-pointer, later making two free throws to clinch it, as Modesto Christian beat St. Mary's of Berkeley 62-57 in overtime for the CIF Northern California Division IV championship Saturday night.
Modesto Christian (27-7) goes to the CIF State Championship game, against Mater Dei Catholic of Chula Vista on Saturday at Arco Arena. Tip-off is at 9:30 a.m.
Henton put the Crusaders on her shoulders, scoring 17 of her 27 points in the fourth quarter and overtime -- setting a record for free throws both made and attempted while doing it.
"The girls started the season saying it was their year," Spencer said. "They've come a long way."
The Crusaders trailed much of Saturday's game against the Panthers. They weren't able to stop junior center Danielle Mauldin (23 points, 11 rebounds), who scored off a variety of inside shots throughout the game.
But Henton and the Crusaders matched her down the stretch. Henton was able to drive inside and draw contact for the fouls. She was 16 for 22 from the line.
"That's what I wanted to do," Henton said. "I wanted them to foul me, especially (Mauldin)."
And with the score tied at 51-all, Henton made one of the game's biggest plays. She grabbed an offensive rebound and went at Mauldin yet again, drawing contact for her fifth foul and ending Mauldin's night.
Henton made both free throws and, after Stefani Agostini made one of two from the line with 20.6 seconds left, Modesto Christian was up 54-51.
It took a miracle play by the Panthers to force overtime. After the Panthers were unable to run a good play in the final seconds, junior guard Sonia Aguilar was forced to shoot from well beyond the 3-point line. It swished through the net, sending the game into overtime.
"When it left her hands it looked good," Spencer said. "You knew it was going in."
As the Panthers fans erupted, Spencer gathered his players for one last talk. It worked.
Henton made a 3-pointer -- MC's only long-range shot of the night -- and Lauren Lucchesi followed a minute later with two free throws for a 59-56 lead.
Henton made two free throws with 19.1 seconds left for a 61-57 lead, and it was over seconds later.
"I was just out there playing ball," Henton said. "I just wanted to win."
It was a far cry from the last time these teams played -- a 41-28 St. Mary's victory early in the season.
"Their point guard took over the game," St. Mary's coach Nate Tripp said. "After the last time we played, I told Robb we were going to be playing again. We already knew."
Since that game, the Crusaders went to work.
"We worked so hard since then," Crusaders sophomore Danielle Thompson said.
Agostini, who made MC's final free throw, felt both teams would bring a different style.
"Last time we scored 28 points," she said. "We knew it would be a different game the next time."
Instead of a slow, methodical battle, the game at Folsom was wide open and exciting. It was especially thrilling for the Crusaders, who gathered in a wild huddle at the end of the game.
"I knew we had the pieces," Spencer said. "But it takes so much to get to state. We had 10 young ladies, going full-bore all the time. And now they're there, one of only 10 teams left."
Now, they're playing for the state championship.
Bee staff writer Will DeBoard can be reached at email@example.com or call 578-2300.