PINOLE -- At the end, it was difficult to tell what did in the state title chances of the Modesto Christian boys' basketball team.
It was either one too many turnovers against Salesian's hard, hand-checking, full-court pressure, or it was one too many guys named Desmond Simmons on the floor.
The Crusaders committed 23 turnovers against the pressure, and Simmons, the Washington-bound forward, turned some of those into baskets en route to 34 points as the defending state Division 4 champions held off MC 69-65 at Pinole Valley High School Saturday night.
Modesto Christian, which trailed 37-24 at the half, battled back to take four slim leads in the fourth quarter, but each time Simmons was there to answer.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Merced Sun-Star
"He steps up in big situations and was the obvious difference tonight," said Salesian coach Bill Mellis. "Modesto Christian played a great game tonight and it was no surprise to me that they came out in the second half and did what they did."
The Pride will take a 32-2 record into the Northern California final, while the Crusaders, 5-8 at one point this season, saw their 19-game winning streak snapped to finish 24-9.
"I'm as proud of this team as any I've coached because of what they endured, then came out to play as hard as they did," said MC coach Gary Porter. "That's really gratifying as a coach to see what the kids could accomplish."
The Crusaders' final lead came with 2 minutes, 2 seconds left in the game when Derek Evans converted a pass from Isaiah Burse for a layup.
The MC defense forced a missed shot, but Simmons -- quick and athletic at 6-foot, 8-inches -- crashed in for the tip to tie the game. When Burse, who finished with 12 points, was tied up and lost the ball on the Crusaders' next possession, Simmons again turned it into a basket on a tip of a missed shot, giving the Pride a 66-64 lead with 1:30 left.
Burse converted one of two free throws with 1:05 remaining to pull MC within a point, but junior guard Quincy Smith hit a 14-foot jumper with 32 seconds left for a 68-65 lead.
The Crusaders had two final chances. Burse's potential game-tying 3-pointer rolled out with 22 seconds left, but Salesian, which converted only 14 of 33 free throws, missed two foul shots to give MC new life.
Anthony Pratt, who had 10 points, came down with the rebound of the second miss, but lost the ball when he was bumped hard from behind. Simmons recovered the ball, was fouled and converted both shots with 10.5 seconds remaining to seal the deal.
The Crusaders were kept in the game by two seniors who turned their roles into prime-time efforts. Alden Wampler had 14 of his 23 points in the first half as MC was just trying to stay close.
"I had to do what I had to do," Wampler said. "My teammates were getting me the ball so I had to stroke it. I know this game was going to be a dogfight, so I had to get in there and battle."
Then, Jimmy Escudero came through in the third quarter to score eight of his 10 points, allowing MC to climb within 48-43 entering the final eight minutes.
"The two days before I spent hours in the gym and I got my shot back," Escudero said. "I fixed the flaw in it and was shooting with more confidence."
How the teams reached that point was interesting. The bulk of Modesto Christian's turnover came against Salesian's hard man-to-man pressure that included a full dose of hard hand-checking.
In the Central Valley, hand-checking is whistled as an automatic foul against the defender when it impedes the progress of the ball-handler. But the Bay Area officials allowed the hand-checking to continue, and both teams had to adjust to it.
"That's why we come and play against teams from this area," Porter said. "The problem was that we tried to step back against the pressure instead of moving forward into it to force the action. We did better against it in the second half."
Mellis, seeing the way the game was being called, simply instructed his team to continue the hand-checking.
"At this point in the competition, we get refs from anywhere," Mellis said. "We try to pressure the ball and we also have to adjust to how the game is called. They let a lot of the handplay go tonight, which probably was to our benefit."
In the end, the turnovers caused by the physical defense probably is what ended the MC season -- one that went on for a remarkable time considering where this team was in December.
"It was fun our there this year," Escudero said. "I wouldn't trade this for any other season."
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2300.