Rob Pierce said it was the best game his team has played all year.
“By far,” the Merced girls basketball coach said. “The last two weeks we’ve been picking it up and playing like we should play. I tell my girls if you play hard, rebound and take care of the ball good, things will happen for us.”
Good things happened for the Bears on Tuesday night as they gutted out a 52-45 win over Buhach Colony at the Thunder Dome.
Lexi Thompson and Dalonna Jones combined to score 25 of Merced’s 27 second-half points as the Bears (3-1 Central California Conference, 10-10 overall) withstood a fourth-quarter charge from Allison Wisdom and the Thunder (3-1, 14-6).
Thompson finished with 20 points, including clutch shots down the stretch. Jones owned the paint, recording a triple-double with 19 points, 13 rebounds and 11 blocks.
“We knew we had to make them work for everything they got, and we were going to have to work for everything we got,” Jones said. “It was not going to be an easy fight. We went hard in practice to prepare for this.”
Buhach Colony has won games this year with its press and defensive prowess, but Merced’s pressure gave the Thunder fits and helped force 23 turnovers.
Pierce made a crucial adjustment from the first matchup against Buhach Colony, which the Thunder won 42-30 on Dec. 6. The Bears coach started the game with Kynisha Turner guarding Wisdom. When Turner got in early foul trouble, Pierce gave the assignment to Alexis Pierce.
Rob Pierce waited until the second half to put Thompson on the Buhach Colony star. The move helped keep Thompson from exerting much of her energy on the defensive end and allowed her to be be more of a threat offensively.
“I feel I have quite a few good defensive players,” Rob Pierce said. “I knew I had enough bodies to throw at (Wisdom). I tell my girls when you’re playing a good offensive player, it’s going to take more than one player to stop her.”
Wisdom still finished with 14 points, but they were hard-earned. She added eight rebounds and five steals. Taj Seals helped with 10 points and nine rebounds, but the Thunder struggled to get scoring from anyone else.
Alexis Pierce scored some key baskets for Merced in the first half. Pierce drained a 3-pointer and was fouled for a four-point play that gave the Bears a 14-10 lead at the end of the first quarter.
The Bears took a 25-23 lead into the half and then Thompson and Jones took over.
Jones had six blocks in the third quarter alone. She was also efficient at the free-throw line, making 9 of 12 attempts.
“DJ is capable of big numbers like that every night,” Rob Pierce said of Jones. “Tonight she showed it. She kept playing hard and she asked for the ball. She’s our team’s anchor. When she plays well, we play well as a team.”
Wisdom didn’t go away easily. She came away with two quick steals and scored three baskets to tie the game at 38 with 6 minutes left.
However, Thompson had an answer every time. The sophomore guard scored seven points in the fourth quarter, including a layup that gave the Bears the lead for good at 47-45 with 2:12 left.
“I knew I had to make things happen to keep our team alive,” Thompson said. “We had to win this game. We had to do whatever we could to win this game.”