TURLOCK – Keith Hunter admits he’s been spoiled with his current group of players.
So when Golden Valley jumped out to a 14-0 lead against Pitman on Wednesday night the Cougars coach was disappointed that his team didn’t go on to win by 25 points. Instead Hunter had to watch as his team grind out a 64-55 win at Pitman High.
“We couldn’t put them away,” Hunter said. “We went up 19 in the first half and we go into halftime up 14 so we lost five points there. We go into the fourth quarter only up five. We were very fortunate to get a win.”
On the bright side for Golden Valley (21-5 overall, 8-1 Central California Conference), the Cougars won its ninth straight game and clinched at least a share of its third straight conference title.
Hunter and his players, however, know they need to play better on Tuesday night at Merced if they don’t want to share the title with the Bears.
“Winning a title is a positive thing,” Hunter said. “These guys have done tremendous things and I have been spoiled with them. My expectations are high and I don’t know if that’s right. We did what we needed to do to get the win.”
It was an impressive start for the Cougars as they held Pitman (13-11, 2-7) scoreless for the first 5 minutes and 15 seconds of the game.
Golden Valley center Josh Sykes was impressive early on as he scored six points, pulled down six rebounds, picked up three assists and recorded a block and a steal all in the first quarter. Sykes finished with eight points, 11 rebounds and four blocks.
The Cougars made 6 of 13 3-pointers in the first half, including four from Evan Stillahn (13 points) as they took a 35-21 lead into intermission.
“As the game starts out 14-0 I’m thinking that’s a first-place team and we’re a team that’s on a five game losing streak,” said Pitman coach Harvey Marable. “That’s what is going on in my mind. We’ve had a good year even with our losing streak. Even in the games we’ve lost our guys battle from the jump of the ball to the end of the game.
“We just continue to try to not have any lapses. Usually when we do have those lapses it’s because of turnovers or we’re not shooting the ball well. We didn’t shoot the ball well early on tonight.”
That changed in the second half as the Pride needed just two minutes to run off nine straight points to pull within 35-30. Four different Pitman players scored during the run.
Golden Valley quickly stretched the lead back out to 45-34 with the help of a couple Christian Carroll 3-pointers, but Pitman scored 24 points in the third quarter to cut the lead to 50-45 heading into the fourth.
“I’ve got to look at the film to see if that was us doing it to ourselves or Pitman doing it to us,” Hunter said. “From where I’m sitting, they were getting too many offensive rebounds for a team that doesn’t have anybody over 6-1. They were getting a lot of the 50-50 balls.”
Pitman’s Gurvinder Uppal (18 points) hit a 3-pointer to cut the Golden Valley to 50-48 with 7:07 left in the game.
The Cougars made the plays they needed to make down the stretch. Damian Jimenez had a big game off the bench for GV, scoring a team-high 14 points. He scored six straight points in the fourth quarter to spark a 9-0 run by Golden Valley to open up a 59-48 lead with 4:14 left.
“Damian had a very big game,” Hunter said. “He made some big shots, especially when Pitman went on their run. He’s fun to watch.”
Pitman still found a way to put itself in a position – down 59-54 with 1:05 left – where if a couple shots fall the Pride could have pulled off the upset.
The Cougars made enough free throws in the final minute to get the win and help set the stage for a big matchup on Tuesday against the Bears.
Kaden Verdin (17 points) scored to put Buhach Colony ahead 53-52 with 22 seconds left. The Bears called a timeout and Richard drove to the basket and drew a foul.
Jonathan Chairez led all scorers with 20 points for Merced, including four 3-pointers.
“You’ve got to give Buhach a lot of credit,” said Bears coach Hector Nava. “Those boys were hungry and they wanted that win. We just hung in there. I’ll take a one-point win any time.”
Hector Rodriguez (six points) put Atwater up for good with 11 seconds to go by scoring on a layup and drawing a foul. Ben Peterson paced the Falcons with 15 points.