Nick Camper didn’t have time to think. He could only react.
The Merced High junior tipped in a miss by Travante Richard just before the buzzer to lift the Bears to a 59-57 win over Modesto on Tuesday night at Clemons Court.
“I guess I was in the right place at the right time,” Camper said. “It was almost a lucky miss by Travante.”
Camper’s last-second shot helped the Bears (5-1) escape with a win in a game that they had held double-digit leads for most of the first half but were unable to pull away from the pesky Panthers.
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Merced blitzed Modesto in the first quarter with its full-court press as it turned turnovers into easy baskets as the Bears sprinted to a 19-6 lead with 1:14 left in the first quarter.
The Panthers slowed the game by going to a 2-3 zone and forced Merced to score in its half-court sets and the Bears struggled. It was unlike the first matchup between the two teams last week at the Modesto City Classic where Merced forced Modesto out of a zone by knocking down shots in a 57-38 win.
This time the zone worked.
“It changed the tide for us,” said Modesto coach Pete Peterson, whose team dropped to 1-5. “It slowed down the tempo for us. It made them go more half court. Man-to-man was going to be a tough proposition for us with some of the athletes they have.”
Every time Merced would stretch the lead out to eight or 10 points the Panthers would close the quarter with a mini run to stay within reach. Norvon Howard (20 points) scored eight straight points in 41 seconds in the second quarter to cut a 12-point deficit to 31-27.
Modesto’s Cesar Martinez came away with a steal and a bucket at the buzzer in the third quarter to pull the Panthers within 48-44.
“It seemed like at the end of quarters we would just relax and Modesto did a good job of taking advantage of that,” Merced coach Hector Nava said. “They did an excellent job with the timing of their zone. It slowed us down and it slowed down our defense. We settled for some outside shots. But I thought our guys stayed composed.”
Travante Richard had a nice all-round game for the Bears as he played all over the floor from center to point guard at times. The senior finished with 19 points, nine rebounds and five steals.
“We want to play fast, but we still have to be patient, make smart passes and use ball fakes,” Richard said. “We have to use all the basics to move the ball. Sometimes we play too fast for ourselves.”
The Bears found themselves in a nailbiter at the end after Modesto’s Orlando Cardenas hit a 3-pointer to tie the game at 55-55 with 2:17 left.
Richard hit a pair of free throws to regain the lead for Merced, but Scott Soares scored inside to tie the game at 57-57 with 1:47 remaining.
Howard missed a 3-pointer with 31 seconds left to give the final shot to Merced.
Richard found a wide open Calvin Garcia on the baseline. Garcia’s 15-foot jumper missed. Richard pulled down the rebound and put up a quick shot, but missed. Camper was there for the putback and as the ball rolled around the rim and the buzzer sounded.
“I didn’t know how much time I had,” Camper said. “I just knew it was in the final seconds. We kind of got lucky the ball rolled around the rim to run the final time off the clock.”