Merced College scratched and clawed its way back into the game on Wednesday night.
Blue Devils head coach Bill Russell upped the defensive pressure and MC had a 14-point deficit down to six with just over 4 minutes to play.
Poor shot selection down the stretch, however, proved costly.
The Blue Devils forced shots on three straight possessions, allowing Gavilan to break things back open.
Matt Johnson provided the dagger, hitting a 3 with 1:32 to play as the Rams pulled out a 57-48 victory at Don Reid Court.
"We tried to insert Carlos (Smith) into the lineup for defensive purposes, and he's not fully up to speed on our sets yet," Russell said. "We wanted his athleticism in there, but we got a little out of whack.
"Very pleased with this team's effort and the way we kept fighting until the end, however."
A cold hand put MC (0-3) behind the eight ball from the onset.
James Waters (11 points and team-high nine rebounds) and Gurpreet Sangha sank the Blue Devils' first two shots of the game, but it was a struggle after that.
MC went just 7 for 28 in the rest of the opening half.
Gavilan (1-2) took advantage, pounding the ball inside to big man Derrick Fox.
He scored 13 of his game-high 18 points in the first half, going to work on MC's undersized interior.
Fox helped push the Rams' lead to as much as 11 and go into intermission up 29-20.
"We didn't want it bad enough out of the gate," Waters said. "People say it's not how you start, but how you finish. Well, we didn't start well and it cost us."
Gavilan kept MC at an arm's length for most of the second half.
The Rams looked poised to break the game open with about 7:30 to play when a defensive breakdown allowed Scott Taylor to hit running jumper and push the Gavilan lead to 14 points.
Behind some full court pressure and quality minutes from recently added football players Smith (seven points) and Matt Lavender (four points) off the bench, the Blue Devils answered with an 8-0 run.
A Smith layup cut the lead to 46-40 with just over 4 minutes to play, but MC could never get any closer.
A couple bad possessions and some clutch buckets by Joel Sales (14 points) pushed Gavilan's lead right back to double digits.
"I thought we got really good contributions off of our bench," Russell said. "Matt did what we need him to do, which is provide another big body down low. He did a good job defensively and even chipped in a couple baskets.
"Carlos missed some layups he'll probably hit later on. But we're going to need his athleticism and quickness, and he showed that."
MC put together one final run.
A quick bucket by Waters followed by a 3-pointer off a steal from Sandoval made it 54-48 with 14 seconds left.
But the Blue Devils simply ran out of time.