EUREKA -- Going right down to the wire, the battle of the top two teams in the Little 4 didn't disappoint.
And the Crusaders needed every bit of their first-half lead to fend off the Wildcats' charge.
After leading by as many as 14 points, the St. Bernard's girls basketball team had to hold on for a 45-42 win over rival Ferndale on Jan. 17.
You think Crusaders head coach Matt Tomlin was happy to have that double-digit advantage in his back pocket going in the second half?
"Absolutely," Tomlin said without any hesitation after the game. "Ferndale is a great team. They're so fundamentally sound. If you slip up, they'll get you."
Come the fourth quarter, the Wildcats did exactly that.
Ferndale chipped away at the home team's lead, slowly but surely seeing the St. Bernard's nine-point lead (35-26) to begin the period get smaller and smaller.
The Wildcats amped up the defense and got three consecutive buckets in transition -- the first by Emma Gomes and then two by Megan Earley -- to cut it to a one-possession game at 41-39 with less than two minutes to go.
And, after Katrina Senestraro hit her second 3-pointer of the night, Ferndale trailed by only one in the closing seconds of the game.
But on the Cats' ensuing possession, they weren't able to get a shot up, enabling Crusaders freshman guard Becca Parker to split a pair of free throws with 1.2 seconds left and clinch the win.
"It was just a matter of getting the job done (on defense) and having the intensity," Ferndale head coach Kristie Christiansen said. "They came out a little hungrier (to start the game), and that's to be expected."
Earley, the only player on either team to finish in double figures, scored eight of her game-high 13 points in the second half.
"Our defense was good. We set out to play a box-and-one defense on Earley and have Ferndale's other players try to beat us," Tomlin said. "We did a great job on Earley for 3 1/2 quarters, but she made some huge shots down the stretch."
After an opening eight minutes where there was a combined 16 points scored, St. Bernard's built a solid lead in the second quarter.
The Crusaders went on an 18-4 run that spanned from late in the first to midway through the second stanza to push their lead into double digits (21-11) for the first time.
The two teams combined to shoot 41 free throws in the first half -- the Crusaders going 10 of 21, while the Cats went 10 of 20.
"Our shooting percentage, either from the foul line or from the floor, wasn't too good tonight," Christiansen said. "You're just going to have games like that during the season. We're usually a good free throw shooting team, but tonight we struggled."
Parker scored a team-high nine points for St. Bernard's, while Joslynn Silvers added eight. Paige Legaz and Karly Robertson both had six.
With the victory, the Crusaders improved to 2-0 in the Little 4 and 13-6 on the season. The Wildcats fell to 1-1 in league play and 13-5 overall.
"(Being 2-0) is very big for us," Tomlin said. "But like we've been saying, it's one game at a time for us. This one is only the second game of six, and we've got to play a good South Fork team next week."
Fortuna continues to roll to begin Big 5 play
FORTUNA -- Defense. Composure. Teamwork.
Those are all characteristics Fortuna showcased in its 58-38 win over McKinleyville on Jan. 16 at Damon Gymnasium.
Case in point: in the fourth quarter, the Huskies only allowed the Panthers to score two points.
"We've always told the kids that defense wins games. That's where the games are won, with effort and defense," Fortuna head coach Joe Rice said. "Any time you keep a team to 38 points, you have to commend the boys."
Fortuna's defense, especially the play of Nate Ambrosini and Daniel Teasley, helped secure the win on offense and defense for the Huskies.
On offense, Ambrosini led the way for the Huskies with 23 points, including two 3-pointers. Teasley finished the night with 17 points.
But on the defense end, Ambrosini and Teasley guarded Mack's top scorer, William Ingersoll. For three quarters, Teasley held Ingersoll to only seven points. When Ambrosini defended Ingersoll in the fourth, he didn't score.
"Ingersoll had a rough game. He missed some shots that he usually makes, and that's typical on the road," McKinleyville head coach Nick Koury said. "He had some clean looks, but they definitely had great defenders on him and they rotated on him and made it tough for him tonight."
Although the final score didn't show it, Mack held its own against Fortuna.
The Panthers (5-12 overall, 1-2 Big 5) continuously made offensive runs that put the Huskies (13-2 overall, 2-0 Big 5) on their toes.
In the first quarter, after being down 13-3 with just over two minutes left, Mack went on a 9-0 run that ended with Garrett Nickols' (4 points) spinning layup to beat the buzzer.
Bernal Rojas led the way for the Panthers with 13 points, including three treys.
"McKinleyville came out to play. They're tough. They're going to cause some problems in the Big 5," Rice said about the Panthers' offensive surges. "They have the ability to go on runs. Sometimes we lose our focus and aren't quite there. We have to call timeout and get refocused."
Although the Panthers hung tough with the Huskies, their inability to hit layups and open shots hindered their offense and their ability to stick with Fortuna.
The Huskies were able to regroup and stay composed even when the Panthers made runs.
Although Ambrosini and Teasley combined for 40 of Fortuna's 58 points, Rice said it's all about the team.
"One night it's (Teasley), one night it's another person," Rice said. "That's what makes the team good, having different people step up on different nights."
PHOTOS BY NICK ADAMS/THE TIMES-STANDARD
1. St. Bernard's Joslynn Silvers puts up a shot in the paint against Ferndale.
2. Ferndale's Nicole Vollmer is fouled during Friday night's contest.