John Sykes wants his bench to come in firing.
The biggest difference between the UC Merced men's basketball team's 0-16 start to the season and the 8-4 mark the Golden Bobcats have posted since is the improved bench play.
Freshman sharpshooter Michael Pierick has had a big hand in that.
He showed why on Thursday night at Hostetler Court, burying four 3-pointers en route to a career-high 12 points. It was part of a 34-point outburst from the Golden Bobcat bench in an 82-73 victory over Simpson University.
"Coach wants me to come in shooting," Pierick said. "The first two I put up were a little off, but I found my range after that.
"The bench is playing with confidence, which is huge for us. Defenses are focusing on Aki (Chambers) and trying to shut him down, so the rest of us have to step up and not leave the scoring all on his shoulders."
Chambers was certainly the go-to guy early, scoring 12 of his team-high 20 points in the game's first 10 minutes and helping UCM (8-20, 6-3 California Pacific Conference) take a 20-17 lead.
Pierick knocked down three quick 3s to help push the Bobcats' lead to six, but Simpson (8-21, 3-6 Cal Pac) countered with its interior game.
The trio of Ian Corella (team-high 20 points), Guy Varsek (16) and Jordan Collins (six points and game-high 13 rebounds) gouged UCM for 22 of the Red Hawks' 33 points in the first half as the two teams went into intermission all tied up.
Sykes' halftime focus was on cleaning that up.
"What we had to do was when they would set the screen and then roll, we needed to make sure one guy rolled with (Corella) instead of having two on the ball handler," Sykes said. "It was just a little in-game adjustment, but it made a big difference.
"They obviously had a size advantage inside, but we battled and made it tougher for them in the second half."
Martin Harris hit a tough 3 as the first-half buzzer sounded to tie up the game, and rode that momentum into the second half.
The Bobcat guard had eight of of his 17 points in the opening 10 minutes of the second half as Merced built a 58-50 lead.
The Bobcat bench took care of the rest.
Javon Barrino scored all 10 of his points in the second half and Mitch Flores added eight.
Pierick hit his final 3 with 6:53 to go, giving Merced a 12-point lead.
Simpson never recovered.
UCM hit 9 of 11 free throws down the stretch to seal its fourth straight victory and set up a showdown Saturday night with first-place William Jessup.
"It's always nice to go into a big game like that with a little momentum," Sykes said. "We're playing some good basketball and hopefully we'll keep that going.
"We've got them here, so hopefully some good things will happen."
Sean Lynch is a Sun-Star sports writer. He can be reached at 385-2476 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.