The Merced High boys basketball team is playing its best basketball at the right time of the season.
The Bears kept their Central California Conference championship hopes alive with an impressive 56-45 victory over Turlock on Friday night at Clemons Court.
Merced dominated the first three quarters as the Bears looked every bit the part of a team that deserves a shot at the time.
“This is the best I’ve seen us play for 31/2 quarters,” said Merced coach Hector Nava. “The way we were moving the ball. The way we were defending. The way we were rebounding. To hold Turlock to five points in the first quarter and five points in the second quarter. That’s the best I’ve seen us play in my three years at Merced.”
The Bears (19-6 overall, 6-2 CCC) sprinted out of the gate to a 10-1 lead as they forced Turlock into costly turnovers. Meanwhile, Merced knocked down a couple three-pointers early from Jonathan Chairez and A.J. Stewart.
“We played soft, we were scared,” said Turlock coach Doug Cornfoot, whose team dropped to 16-8 and 5-3. “Just looking into our eyes, you could see we were scared. The first three or four minutes I knew we were in trouble. We were leaving our feet to make passes, we were slow getting back on defense and we were trying to shoot soft floaters.”
The Bears held Turlock scoreless for almost six minutes to start the second quarter as they extended their lead to 21-5 before settling on a 28-10 lead at the half.
It was a much different approach after Merced never really had a shot in a 54-40 loss to the Bulldogs in the first matchup at Turlock on Jan. 22.
“The first time we played them we kind of rushed and we didn’t value the ball,” Chairez said. “We focused on four things for this game. We wanted to value the ball, we wanted to rebound, play defense and communicate. We focused on all four things and we got the win.”
Chairez drained three three-pointers in the first half and finished with 18 points and nine rebounds. The Bulldogs had a tough time finding a guard that could stay with Merced freshman Ulonzo Gilliam, who 13 points and four steals.
Merced’s Stewart added 13 points, including six quick points in the third quarter that put the Bears ahead 38-14.
Kenny Fraser scored 15 of his 23 in the fourth quarter as Turlock cut the lead down to 51-43 with 1:30 left, but ran out of time.
Merced helped open the door for a Turlock comeback in the fourth quarter with eight turnovers in the final eight minutes. The Bears also sent the Bulldogs to the free throw line 13 times in the fourth quarter.
“We’ve got to learn how to finish better,” Nava said.
The win puts Merced one win away from playing Golden Valley for a share of the CCC title in the final game of the season. The Merced-GV game was originally scheduled for Friday, but has been moved to Tuesday, Feb. 18 at Merced High.
“This is what the spring, fall and summer is all about,” Nava said. “This is what we work for, to try to be on top of the CCC. We’re taking it one game at a time. We have to play Buhach Colony next and they have a lot of pieces. Right now every league game for us is for the CCC. We understand Golden Valley is one game ahead of us. Every game is a playoff game for us if we want to win CCC.”
• Golden Valley 76, Buhach Colony 38, – Behind Christian Carroll’s game-high 18 points the Cougars (20-5, 7-1 CCC) scored 53 points in the opening half and cruised to a win over the Thunder.
Kaden Verdin had 15 points in the loss for BC (4-21, 1-7 CCC)
• Atwater 60, Pitman 54, at Turlock – Ben Peterson led three Falcons players in double-figures with 17 points. Hector Rodriguez added 11 points and Corbett McDaniel 10 points for Atwater (15-10, 3-5 CCC).
Branson Garcia hit five three-pointers and led Pitman with 22 points.
• Pacheco 73, Livingston 65 (OT), at Livingston – Edgar Iglesias scored 41 of his game-high 47 points in the second half and overtime to rally the Panthers (10-14, 4-6 WAC) past Livingston. Iglesias made seven three-pointers.
Harmen Singh finished with a team-high 24 points for the Wolves (7-17, 1-8 WAC).
• Buhach Colony 47, Pitman 35, at Atwater – Allison Wisdom and Barbara Coward both scored 12 points as the Thunder (17-6, 6-1 CCC) pulled into a first place tie atop the CCC with Merced with three games left.
Sun-Star staff writer Shawn Jansen can be reached at (209) 385-2462 or firstname.lastname@example.org.