SACRAMENTO — In the end, Modesto Christian High's girls basketball team didn't just fall short in the Division IV state title game, it tripped and fell hard and fast.
After leading for nearly the entire game, building margins as large as 12 points, the Crusaders tumbled in the final 3 minutes, 30 seconds — long enough for Mater Dei of Chula Vista to finish the game on a 15-2 run and steal a 54-51 victory at Arco Arena.
"It's tough to swallow," said MC coach Robb Spencer. "We were working so hard. I made some coaching mistakes and we had some mental breakdowns. We had a monster year and we came up a little bit short."
Modesto Christian will have to settle for a 27-8 record and the school's second Northern California girls title. Mater Dei claimed its first state crown at 30-3.
If there was a way to adjust MC's record to 27-7-1, the Crusaders might take it. Saturday morning's early contest (9:30 tip-off) might just as well be considered two different games, with each team claiming a half.
Such was the nature of the play, and it was only partially due to the players on the court.
Modesto Christian has gone nine deep all year, while Mater Dei has no effective players coming off its bench. In the first half, when only 14 fouls were called and only 10 free throws were taken, the lack of foul stoppages kept Mater Dei from resting during free throws.
The result? Modesto Christian finished the first quarter on a 12-2 run to take an 18-12 lead, then sprinted to the end of the half on a 6-2 run to lead 31-19 at intermission against a visibly fatigued foe.
"They were tired," said MC junior guard Brandi Henton. "And their heads were down because we were beating them by a lot."
Henton had her way in the first half, scoring 13 points. And the MC bench chipped in, with sophomore Danielle Thomson scoring 10 before halftime.
Mater Dei made the first adjustment, switching from a man-to-man defense to a combination zone. Guard Kamela Jackson was assigned to shadow Henton, while the other four players stayed back in a flat-top 3-1 zone.
Modesto Christian responded by going stagnant on offense.
"We didn't do a good enough job of breaking for the ball," Spencer said. "We kind of stood around and watched for a minute, and that turned into a longer minute, and then it went on."
MC hurt by fouls
The second adjustment was made by the three-person officiating crew, which opened the second half whistling a much-tighter game and it didn't stop. The foul calls did not favor either team by number, but the frequent stoppage allowed Mater Dei to stay fresh.
"The fouls helped us a lot," said Mater Dei coach David Monroe. "We had to work extra hard to come back, so when they started calling the fouls it gave us some extra rest. I told my girls that I wasn't going to substitute, that the five on the floor would be out there until the end of the game or until they fouled out."
There were 25 fouls called in the second half, resulting in 36 free throws. The extra rest ensured that when Mater Dei needed to make one final run, their legs would respond.
And it was quite a run. When Lauren Lucchesi made two free throws with 3:39 remaining, Modesto Christian led 49-39 and still was very much in control.
Seconds later, MC's Taryn Garza was whistled for a backcourt touch foul, and Mater Dei converted both free throws. A bad MC pass became another free throw, and guard Jhazmine Lynch got loose for six straight points — two on free throws — to pull Mater Dei within 49-48 with 1:36 remaining.
"I commented to one of the officials about how the game was being officiated," Spencer said. "I'm not making any excuses, but it did make a difference. We couldn't trap in the second half the way we did in the first because Mater Dei was constantly on the free-throw line. That takes away so much of what we wanted to do."
Lucchesi pushed the lead back to 51-48 on two free throws with 1:22 left, setting the stage for the game's big call.
Senior post Ebone Henry got the ball above the 3-point line, drove past Garza at the free throw line and sent MC freshman Valerie Moore flying with a dipped shoulder before rising to make a layup.
Moore, who clearly had established position on the play, was whistled for the foul, and Henry's free throw forged the game's first tie with 1:13 left.
The teams exchanged turnovers and Garza missed inside, giving Mater Dei a chance to take the lead in the final 40 seconds. A shot was missed inside, and as four players jumped for the rebound Stefani Agostini was whistled for a foul.
Henry's two free throws with 27.1 seconds left gave Mater Dei its first lead since the opening five minutes, and when MC threw away the inbounds pass, Jackson was fouled. She made one free throw to increase Mater Dei's lead to three.
Modesto Christian's final possession resulted in a good look at a 3-pointer, but Henton's attempt from the right wing found the back iron at the buzzer.
Henton finished with 14 points, Garza 13 and Thompson 10 for MC, which got 42 of its 51 points from players who will return next season. Lynch had 18 and Souliah Evans 14 for Mater Dei, which received zero points, one rebound and three turnovers in 20 minutes from its bench.
"It's tough right now, but our future looks so bright," Henton said. "We have to go out and get stronger and quicker, and we could possibly be back here next year."
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2300.