Hector Nava gathered his team around at the end of the first quarter Friday night and applauded their aggressiveness on defense.
His Merced High boys basketball team was contesting every shot and held visiting Atwater to just two buckets from the field in the opening quarter. Navas one critique was that the Bears were not displaying the same kind of aggressiveness on the offensive end.
All that changed halfway through the second quarter. Merced began attacking the basket and good things happened. The Bears got to the free throw line 36 times and knocked down enough of them to open Central California Conference play with a 50-44 victory at Clemons Court.
We talked about it before the game, as long as we defended and rebounded, wed have a chance to do something no matter what we did offensively, Nava said. We were too content settling for jumpers in that first quarter. I told them we needed to go to the basket.
Once we started attacking, things opened up for us offensively.
Defense at poor shot selection ruled in a 6-6 first quarter as both teams struggled to execute in their half-court sets. Things didnt get any better four minutes into the second quarter with the game tied 8-8. Merceds (12-5, 1-0 CCC) transition game finally produced some offense.
Travante Richard (game-high 18 points, six rebounds) drained a 3 and freshman guard Ulonzo Gilliam (13 points, four steals) followed with six straight points to help the Bears ride an 11-0 run into 19-10 halftime lead.
This is a rivalry game, so we expected it to be close, Richard said. Both teams were getting after it defensively. Our freshman guard (Gilliam) started to go off. It kind of got the rest of us going and we went on a run.
Merced managed to expand its lead to 14 points at the end of three as Atwater (12-6, 0-1 CCC) shot just 5 of 34 from the field through the first three quarters. That coupled with 23 turnovers were all the ingredients needed for a long evening.
They came at us hard and we panicked a little bit, Falcons coach Tony Hillyer said. We started rushing things offensively and played right into their hands. They werent even pressing us.
They played off and then used their quickness to intercept the ball in the passing lanes or simply waited for our guards to make a mistake. You can be the No. 1 college team in the nation and playing a little Podunk nobody and you arent going to overcome 36 free throws and 23 turnovers.
Hillyers squad didnt fold, however, and managed to make things interesting in the fourth quarter.
Ben Peterson had eight of his team-high 17 points in the fourth quarter and Josh Heller (11 points) chipped in five.
After riding the free-throw line to a double-digit lead through the first three and a half quarters, Merced failed to finish Atwater off in the last two minutes. The Bears hit just 4 of their last 13 free throw attempts, allowing the Falcons to make it interesting.
A Hector Rodriguez 3-pointer trimmed the lead to 48-44 with 19 seconds to go, but that was as close as Atwater would get.
We lost a little bit of our aggressiveness in the fourth quarter, Nava said. We started going East to West instead of North to South and we began turning the ball over. We got just enough at the line to get the win.