The Merced High boys basketball team isn’t going to win many pretty ballgames.
It just isn’t the Bears’ style.
Merced posses a handful of capable scorers, but isn’t likely to shoot the lights out on most evenings. The Bears’ best offense is their transition game, and that’s predicated by their defense’s ability to force turnovers. And when Hector Nava’s squad is focused, they can cause a lot of turnovers.
Merced turned the intensity up a notch in the last nine-and-a-half minutes on Friday night, forcing 14 Buhach Colony turnovers, and leaving the Thunder in its wake en route to a 72-50 victory at Clemons Court. The win coupled with Turlock’s loss to Atwater moves the Bears (15-6, 3-1 Central California Conference) into a three-way tie for first place and adds a little extra drama to next week’s crosstown clash with 3-1 Golden Valley.
“I’ve said from the beginning that if this team wants to be successful, it has to defend,” Nava said. “We did it at times tonight. The fourth quarter we put it all together.”
Merced never trailed in the game, but couldn’t create any separation from the Thunder (3-16, 0-4 CCC) for three quarters.
A cold shooting hand coupled with BC’s grit saw to that. The Thunder played without suspended head coach John Bliss after he was ejected from Wednesday’s contest, but assistant coach Dave Putonen got the most out of his squad.
Behind Kevin Walejko’s team-high 12 points, BC fought through 18 first-half turnovers and leading scorer Kaden Verdin’s foul trouble to go into the half down just 26-23.
The Thunder pulled even on a pair of Kory Woods (8 points) free throws with 1:30 to go in the third, but never got the chance to take the lead. An A.J. Stewart (11 points, 4 steals) bucket followed by a Stwart steal and lay up helped Merced close the third with a 6-0 run.
“We were very disappointed with the score at halftime,” Stewart said. “We knew we should have had a big lead and were letting them hang around. We couldn’t have the Turlock game all over again. We just had to finish strong.”
Ulonzo Gilliam (8 points, 4 steals) scored the first four points of the fourth quarter to push the Bear lead to 10, and Nava’s squad laid the throttle down after that. Travante Richard scored eight of his game-high 18 points in the fourth quarter as Merced outscored Buhach Colony 28-12 in the fourth.
“Turning the ball over has really hurt us this season,” Putonen said. “You could see it tonight. We’re not just doing it once or twice and then getting it back together. We’re turning it over five, six times in a row and you can’t do that and expect to win games.
“I was proud of how hard the kids played tonight. You just wish they’d start getting rewarded for that effort.”