Kenny Cooper wasn't intimidated by Modesto's giant trio.
In fact, it was quite the opposite.
"They were playing me soft," said Merced's 6-foot-4 center. "I noticed that in the first half.
"I just used my quickness and attacked the basket."
Cooper scored 13 of his 18 points in the second half as No. 1 seed Merced defeated No. 16 Modesto 76-61 Friday night in the first round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoffs.
Merced (20-8) will face Sacramento Kennedy in the quarterfinals on Tuesday at the University of the Pacific.
No. 9 Kennedy defeated Stockton Edison 60-54.
It's the first time Merced has advanced out of the first round since 1997.
"It's step one," Merced coach Marcus Knott said. "Our guys are really serious about the goals we've set this season.
"This is the hardest one -- especially when you haven't won a playoff game in awhile."
Ending the drought wasn't easy.
Modesto (15-11) closed the first half with a 10-0 run to cut Merced's lead to 36-35 at intermission.
Cooper found himself on the bench after a couple of lackluster plays early in the third quarter.
He watched as the two teams exchanged the lead seven times during that period.
When Merced's Patrick Franey picked up his fourth foul with about three minutes left in the quarter, Cooper returned and immediately made a difference against Modesto's front line of Matt Vermeulen (6-foot-8), Josh Jones (6-7) and Julius Brazzel (6-7).
Cooper capped off Merced's 12-4 run, closing out the quarter with the final five points to give Merced a 56-50 lead.
"We wanted to make somebody else beat us besides (Allen Huddleston) and (Jarrett Sparks)," Modesto coach Don Wallace said.
"(Cooper) and (Franey) hit a couple shots and made us change things up."
Merced put the game away early in the fourth as Cooper and Sparks scored all the points during a 10-3 run to start the quarter to extend the lead to 66-53.
"Kenny did a real good job," Huddleston said. "He was driving, rebounding, getting to the line. He was doing stuff he normally doesn't do.
"We needed it."
Sparks finished with 21 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals.
Huddleston led all scorers with 27 points.
"This was big for us," Huddleston said, "especially since our school hasn't done it in about 10 years.
"The last time Merced went into their final conference game undefeated and lost, they went on to win the section title.
"That's a good sign for us."
Shawn Jansen is a Sun-Star sports reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via phone at 385-2462.