It’s hard to imagine Ulonzo Gilliam was just an eighth-grader at Cruickshank Middle School a year ago, playing in tiny gyms around Merced County.
This afternoon, he’ll be playing in an NBA arena as the Bears’ starting point guard when sixth-seeded Merced (23-6) faces No. 2 Rodriguez (25-2) in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I semifinals at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento. Tipoff is scheduled for 4 p.m.
“It’s crazy,” said Gilliam, who turned 15 on Sunday. “It’s a big difference. We won the whole thing when I was in eighth grade. Now I’m trying to do it in high school. It’s going to be exciting. I have to play with confidence and play under control. If I can do that, everything will be all right.”
Gilliam is a big reason the Bears have advanced to the semifinals. In the first round against Pleasant Grove of Elk Grove, Gilliam made two late free throws to give Merced the lead and forced a turnover in the final seconds to seal the win.
His defense also played a big role in the quarterfinals as the Bears overcame a 10-point halftime deficit for the second straight game in a 38-37 win over Franklin of Elk Grove.
“He doesn’t play like a freshman,” Merced senior Travante Richard said. “He listens. He’s very coachable. If you tell him to do something, he goes out and does it.”
Gilliam will be a key against an athletic Rodriguez team that loves to pressure the ball. The Mustangs are built to turn steals into easy baskets. Offensively, Rodriguez looks to attack the basket. In that respect, the teams are similar.
Merced coach Hector Nava has to feel good about his team’s chances because of the maturity he’s seen from his freshman point guard. Nava saw early on Gilliam was ready to play varsity.
“He’s physically gifted,” Nava said. “You could see that at the junior high level. He was more physical than the other kids. The way he moved around and carried himself, you could tell. I knew the kid could play defense, and it’s my job to help him play offense.”
Nava brought Gilliam along slow. He made him earn a starting spot, and toward the end of the season he’s asked Gilliam to do more.
“After the first game against Golden Valley (a 62-56 loss Jan. 29), I called him,” Nava said. “I told him, ‘We’re going to put the ball in your hands more. I want you to be ready.’ He’s opened up more as the season has gone on. He’s not as shy. He talks to the guys more, and his game has opened up, too.”
Since that phone call, Merced has won seven games in a row, including four against playoff teams.
Gilliam has shown an ability to raise his level of play in big games. He scored 13 points in a crucial 56-45 win at home over Turlock on Feb. 7 and 11 points in the Bears’ 61-51 win over Golden Valley on Feb. 18 that clinched a co-Central California Conference championship.
“He was ready for the crowds,” Bears sophomore A.J. Stewart said. “He hasn’t let them get to him. Playing in front of big crowds doesn’t change his game.”
For Gilliam, it’s all about confidence. As his confidence level rose during the season, his game expanded.
“I’m getting more comfortable with my team than I was at the beginning of the season,” Gilliam said. “Early on, I was worried about making mistakes. That’s one thing coach Nava has said is don’t worry about making mistakes.”
Nava can’t help but be excited for Gilliam’s future. If he’s already a game-changer as a freshman on defense, how good will he be in three years?
“I can visualize it already,” Nava said. “He’s a 4.0 student. He’s a smart kid. You tell him one thing and he makes it happen. He knows the game. I can see him next year and his senior year. There are some things we need to work on. We’ll improve his shot. Just because he’s had a great freshman year doesn’t mean he doesn’t have to stop improving.”