Symone Gilliam watched as her Merced teammate Lexi Thompson scored on a layup. Gilliam then snuck behind a Buhach Colony player and waited.
As the inbound pass was made, Gilliam jumped in front to make a steal and drew a foul on the way to the basket. The sophomore sank both free throws to give the Bears a one-point lead with just over 2 minutes left in the game.
The play sparked the Bears as they went on to defeat Buhach Colony 60-54 to clinch at least a share of the Central California Conference championship on Thursday night at Clemons Court.
“They love to get the ball to (Allison) Wisdom and I saw our player cut her off so there was only one player left for them to pass the ball to, which was my man,” Gilliam said. “I knew she couldn’t see me so I just came from behind and stole the ball. It really turned the game around and gave us the momentum.”
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Gilliam’s free throws were part of a 26-point fourth quarter that saw Merced overcome a six-point deficit, pull even three times with the Thunder, before Gilliam gave the Bears a 51-50 lead with 2 minutes and 17 left in the game.
“I’m very pround of our girls,” said Merced coach Rob Pierce, whose team won their first CCC title since 2008. “It was a tight game the whole way. I told our girls at half that even though we were down five we were OK. We were in good position. We played hard and defense kept us in the game.”
Merced forced Buhach Colony (18-7 overall, 7-2 Central California Conference) into 27 turnovers, including seven in the fourth quarter.
Meanwhile, the Bears (15-10, 8-1) got some big contributions on offense across the board. Thompson scored 11 of her 20 points in the fourth quarter. Dalonna Jones played through foul trouble from start to finish and still managed 15 points, 13 rebounds, five blocks.
Alexis Pierce added 11 points and Gilliam scored nine.
“Winning a title is the best feeling in the world,” Thompson said. “We knew we had to pick it up. We didn’t want to let them get this. We wanted to prove to them after beating them at their place last time. We weren’t going to let them get it this time.”
The Thunder came into the season looking for a third straight conference title and they put themselves in position to do it early in the game.
Allison Wisdom did her part, scoring 20 points. Kaelee Lynch had a big game of the bench for the Thunder with 13 points, including some big shots. Lynch made five shots from the floor and three of them gave Buhach Colony the lead during different points of the game.
Brandy Coward came up with three big steals at the end of the of the third quarter, including one they she dribbled down for a layup that gave the Thunder a 36-34 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Wisdom then hit a 3-pointer that gave Buhach Colony a five-point lead with 7:36 left.
“Even after she hit that shot I knew we only needed one stop and we’d be OK,” Rob Pierce said. “We’ve got a lot of players who can score points. Dalonna was on fire. Lexi was making big plays. Alexis (Pierce) hit a big shot and Symone stepped up.”
The Bears did a lot of their damage from the free throw line. Merced made 12 of 17 free throws in the fourth quarter.
Twice Merced nailed big 3-pointers to pull even with the Thunder midway through the fourth quarter. First it was Pierce making a trey to tie the game at 43-all with 5:13 left. Thompson then hit a big shot from behind the arc to tie the game at 47-all with 3:18 left.
Buhach Colony kept answering as Lynch scored on a drive to the basket and drew a foul to give Buhach Colony a 50-47 lead.
That’s when Thompson’s layup and Gilliams’ steal sparked Merced’s 13-4 run to close the game.
Merced has a one game lead over Buhach Colony and Atwater and can clinch the title outright against Golden Valley on Tuesday.