MC girls 'role' with it

SALIDA — Robb Spencer's role players were asked to fill new roles Thursday, after Modesto Christian's starting lineup took another hit.

With 5-10 Valerie Moore already on crutches, MC played the NorCal quarterfinal without 5-11 Taryn Garza. The flu and a sore knee sidelined her.

That meant 5-4 Brittany Richardson and 5-5 Marinna McKeever went from reserves expected to hold their own for a few minutes at a time, to starters who rarely left the court.

It also put pressure on point guard Alexus Tillman to produce points to go with her passes. She also took over as MC's defensive devil, pressuring Justin-Siena's star Janelle Travis.

"She stayed in front of her and didn't pick up any cheap fouls," MC's coach said after the 57-47 win over Justin-Siena. "With Val and Taryn out, she also gave us more scoring."

Garza practiced Friday and is expected to play tonight. She might come off the bench for MC (28-4) in tonight's NorCal semifinal versus McKinleyville (28-3) in a battle of state-ranked teams: MC is No. 3 in Division 4 and McKinleville No. 8.

A strong defender and leaper, her entry at some point in the first quarter could provide a spark for the Crusaders, seeded second in the NorCal regional, and force No. 3-seed McKinleyville to adjust to the dramatic size difference if she were to replace a shorter guard.

Having Tillman (13 points, five assists), McKeever (eight points, 10 rebounds) and Richardson alongside Long Beach State-bound Brandi Henton, MC's quickness forced Justin to abandon its trap defense.

If nothing else, the Crusaders' top reserves showed they can answer the call if needed to step in for an extended periiod. McKeever was 5-for-6 on the free-throw line the final two minutes, and Richardson shared the ballhandling role.

Richardson and McKeever defended taller foes, and their effort forced Justin into its second-worst offensive performance of the season — the previous low was 46 points.

MC was using a seven-player rotation early this season, then the arrival of Tillman (a transfer who gained eligibility in January) and the return of Vanessa Cagle (torn ACL) gave Spencer eight players.

It was a six-player rotation Thursday, with Cagle providing brief respits for the starters. She shows the rust of having been sidelined for seven months, but did hit four key free throws in a section semifinal win. At 5-6, though, she is another perimeter player.

The Crusaders might need some height against McKinleyville, which beat Justin by a duce in the North Coast Section semifinal. The Panthers have five other players who are 5-8 or taller, including 6-1 junior Jocelyn Grondoski.

The key, though, will be the McKinleyville guards' ability to handle intense pressure — regardless of the lineup that Spencer decides to go with.