ATWATER — The Merced boys basketball team has endured its share of cold shooting nights.
Many of the local rims have proven unkind to the Bears through the first half of Central California Conference play.
But the second quarter of Friday night’s tilt with Atwater showed the Bears might have hope of thawing in the second half. Merced nailed 9 of its 13 second-quarter attempts, including four 3s, breaking the game open with a 25-point outburst. The Falcons never recovered as the Bears opened the second half of league play with a 65-54 victory at the Nest.
The win ties Merced for second place in the standings with Turlock and puts them two wins clear of Atwater and Pitman for the league’s third playoff spot.
“I’ve been waiting all season for a quarter like that,” Merced coach Hector Nava said. “I know they’re capable of it, because I see them knock down shots in bunches during practice. But for whatever reason we haven’t been able to do it in games very often.
“I told the kids after it was just a good team victory. Guys came off the bench and gave us big contributions, and everyone was on the floor for loose balls.”
Atwater (14-9, 2-4 CCC) came out the aggressor in a game it needed to win to realistically remain in the race for a top-three finish and the playoff berth that comes with it. Josh Heller set the tone inside, scoring seven of his team-high 16 points in the first quarter.
Merced (16-7, 4-2 CCC) found its bearings late in the first quarter, however, and tied things up at 13-13 on a Jonathan Chairez 3-pointer.
The Bears kicked things up a notch in the second quarter. Merced scored the first eight points, taking a 21-13 lead on an A.J. Stewart (12 points) and one.
Nava’s squad was just getting started. The trio of Travis Pazin, Brandon Blackwell and Jermon Cook combined for 14 points off of the bench in the second quarter and the Bears went into intermission up 38-23. Merced shot 14 of 27 in the first half and was 6 of 13 beyond the arc.
“The funny part was we were rushing the offense a little bit,” said Chariez, who finished with a game-high 17 points. “But as that quarter went along everybody just seemed to be getting hotter and hotter.
“I’ve really been cold recently, but coach told me I just need to keep shooting. I decided I have five games left, and I need to put in the work for my team.”
Merced couldn’t sustain its second-quarter energy, however, and Atwater fought itself right back into the game in the third.
Four quick points from Hector Rodriguez brought the Falcons within 11 and it remained that way going into the fourth. More importantly, the Bears got into foul trouble, putting Atwater in the double bonus for the entire fourth quarter.
Tony Hillyer’s squad failed to take advantage.
Atwater made only 10 of 20 free throws in the second half, going just 5 of 12 in the final quarter.
“I never envisioned them shooting like that,” Hillyer said. “But even as hot as they were, we were right there in the game. If we knock down those early free throw chances, it’s a completely different game down the stretch.
“Some nights teams are just going to shoot the lights out. You can’t control that. But if we make our free throws, we’re still right there at the end.”
Merced didn’t exactly finish things off at the line either (5 of 14 in the fourth quarter), but Chairez’s two 3s and five fourth-quarter points from Travante Richard (14 points) made sure there would be no comeback.
Sun-Star staff writer Sean Lynch can be reached at (209) 385-2476 or email@example.com.