Crusader girls pull away to hold off Justin-Siena

SALIDA — Alexus Tillman said she felt it, so she pulled up 23 feet from the basket and let it rip ... then listened to the crowd explode as it went in.

"Sometimes you get the feeling that you can't miss," said Tillman, Modesto Christian High's junior point guard. "I had a surge of confidence and I felt we needed a lift right then."

Tillman's trey did just that, turning back a rally and giving the short-handed Crusaders a 57-47 win over Justin-Siena in a Northern California Division 4 quarterfinal.

The No. 2-seeded Crusaders (28-4) will host No. 3 McKinleyville (28-3) on Saturday at 7 p.m. in a semifinal. McKinleyville topped Colfax, 57-30.

The big question for MC, the defending NorCal champ, is who will be on the court?

MC played without 5-foot-11 forward Taryn Garza, who averages 14 points and nine rebounds. She was sidelined by a sore knee and the flu, a potential disaster with 5-10 Valerie Moore on crutches after tearing her ACL recently.

That left 6-1 junior Danielle Thompson as the lone starter in the frontcourt, against a 27-4 team that featured a pair of 5-11 forwards underneath.

So, the Crusaders turned to a four-guard lineup: Tillman, shooting guard Brandi Henton and the duo of Marinna McKeever and Brittany Richardson, who usually come off the bench to spell a starter.

"We've had kids step up to the plate all season, and I told them before the game we had to do it one more time," coach Robb Spencer said. "The disadvantage was that we gave up a lot in size, but the advantage was we got very quick."

With a quartet of ballhandlers — Vanessa Cagle came off the bench to provide some rest for the four — Justin-Siena was unable to use the pressure defense that it so loves.

It also made the Braves hesitant on the offensive end, never knowing when a hand was going to swat a pass away.

But playing with 5-foot-4 Richardson and 5-5 McKeever meant the Crusaders had to battle for every defensive rebound and couldn't count on many second-chance points.

That allowed Justin to stay close, closing to within 44-38 when Janelle Travis nailed a 3-pointer with 4:55 to play. It sent Justin's fans into a frenzy and, for the first time all night, had MC wondering if the loss of two post players was too much to overcome.

Tillman (13 points) answered the question, dribbling up the right side and pulling up with a defender five feet away. She launched one of those "oh no you didn't ... yes you did!" shots that had the gym rockin' as it gave MC a 47-38 lead.

"I could feel the momentum starting to shift, and we needed a big play to get it back," said Tillman, a transfer who could not play until early January. "I'm usually happy to handle the ball and distribute, because we've got good scorers in Brandi, Taryn, Danielle and Valerie.

"Without Val and Taryn, I have to start looking more to score. We can't make Brandi do it all alone every night."

Henton certainly played up to her reputation, scoring 24 points — hitting 13 of 18 free throws — with 10 rebounds and four steals. Justin had no one capable of staying with Henton, who penetrated over and over against a 2-3 zone.

The Crusaders' quickness was evident in the free-throw shooting: MC connected on 29 of 37 free throws, accounting for more than half its points.

While Tillman's trey made sure MC stayed ahead, it was free-throw shooting in the final minutes that clinched it.

McKeever (eight points, 10 rebounds) hit 5 of 6 in the final 1:45, while Tillman and Henton each went 2-for-2.

When it was over, it was all Thompson could do to stay on her feet. She had eight points and 14 rebounds, and was being pounded from all sides.

She wasn't alone, either.

Henton played all but the final 43 seconds of the third period. The other guards had only moments of rest, as Spencer used a six-girl rotation.

They had enough energy to continually pressure Justin, and by the time it was over, the Braves were just as tired.

"You could see that Lex's shot sucked the life out of them," said Spencer. "They tried to make a run, but she shut them down."

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