ELK GROVE — Travante Richard knew he had the reach.
Franklin of Elk Grove’s Christian Allen hadn’t shown much interest in driving to the basket all night, so when the ball swung to him in the right corner, Richard didn’t hesitate to leap.
Merced’s senior had enough length to block the shot, and the presence of mind to corral the ball and heave it to halfcourt before he fell out of bounds. Merced chased down the loose ball and the 38-37 victory. On a night where defense ruled, it was only appropriate that one final gem secure the Bears’ spot in the Sac-Joaquin Section semifinals and a trip to Sleep Train Arena.
Merced will face Rodriguez, which defeated Golden Valley 69-64 on Friday night, at 4 p.m. next Wednesday.
“I knew he was a shooter and that he hadn’t attacked the basket all night,” Richard said. “I’m pretty lengthy, so I was confident I could get the ball. I just waited for his first move.
“I was trying to just run out the clock, but when I saw us get the ball, I knew it was over.”
For the second time in three nights Merced (23-6) kept its season alive with a second-half comeback. Friday’s version wasn’t as big a hole to overcome as its first-round victory, but it was every bit as dramatic.
The Bear defense led the charge again.
Franklin (20-9) caught fire in the second quarter, hitting 7 of 10 shots, including six straight at one point. The Wildcats closed the half with a 15-1 run and went into intermission up 25-15.
The second half was a very different story.
Merced head coach Hector Nava urged freshman point guard Ulonzo Gilliam to extend out the Bear zone and make John Moscoso’s life miserable. Moscoso (team-high 15 points) led all scorers with 10 points at halftime, but only hit two shots the rest of the way.
“We had him on (Moscoso) from the beginning, but Ulonzo was getting sucked down into our zone and that was giving him free space. We just pushed him back out and their offense had a much harder time executing after that.”
The rest of the Bears were energized by the freshman’s effort. Merced held Franklin to just 12 points in the second half and 4 of 18 shooting.
Richard (game-high 22 points) carried the offensive load for much of the night. His nine third-quarter points helped trim the Wildcat lead to 32-28 at the end of three. But the senior also picked up his fourth foul just before the end of the quarter and was forced to the bench.
A.J. Stewart (10 points) and Gilliam stepped up in his absence.
Stewart drained a pair of free throws to tie the game at 32-32 with 4:06 to play, but Franklin quickly answered.
Moscoso finally got loose, hitting Franklin’s only two fourth-quarter baskets. His 3 with 1:37 left gave the Wildcats a 37-34 lead.
Richard countered with a pair of free throws and then Gilliam knocked the ball loose to Stewart on the ensuing defensive possession. Stewart sprung the break and dished back to Gilliam for the game-winning layup with 26.8 seconds left. It was Merced’s only lead of the second half.
“Their guard was really quick,” Gilliam said. “The coaches told me to just keep my hands up, and I was able to get a piece of the ball when he let it get a little too far in front of him.
“When A.J. gave me back the ball and I made that layup, it was a feeling I’d never felt before.”