Trailing by 11 points entering the fourth quarter, the season was on the line for the Merced boys basketball team in a first round playoff game against Pleasant Grove.
“Coach told us to keep fighting and playing defense and we can come out with a win,” said Bears freshman point guard Unlonzo Gilliam. “That’s what we did.”
The sixth-seeded Bears (23-6) held the No. 11 Eagles to just two points in the fourth quarter as Merced rallied for a 56-52 win.
Two nights later, Merced stifled a Franklin (Elk Grove) team averaging 61 points per game in a 38-37 win to clinch a berth in Wednesday’s semifinals against No. 2 Rodriguez (25-2).
This Bears team learned early on that defense was their ticket to success.
“We are extremely fast,” said Merced coach Hector Nava. “The guys are focused and disciplined. They’re using the talents that God gave them. They move sideways well. They can move east, west, north and south.
“At the beginning of the year, we didn’t have a lot of flow to our offense. We had to make sure our defense and rebounding were strong and that carried us through those games. Once our offense kicked in, we started looking like a scary team.”
When exactly the Bears turned into a section title contending team is up for debate.
If you ask Nava, it was the start of league with the Bears coming off a tournament win in Sonora. Nava could tell his team turned the corner by the way they prepared for their Central California Conference opener against Atwater.
“You could see the look in their eyes,” Nava said. “They were locked in.”
Ask guards A.J. Stewart or Travante Richard and they’ll tell you everything clicked after a loss to Golden Valley midway through the conference season.
Gilliam said the Bears kicked it into gear in final regular season win against Golden Valley and have carried momentum into the playoffs.
“We fought so hard to be in first place,” Gilliam said. “We had to keep pushing ourselves in the playoffs.”
What they can all agree on is they are playing their best basketball of the season now, winning seven consecutive games and holding opponents to fewer than 55 points each game.
“We want to win and defense is the key to winning,” Gilliam said. “We know we have to play hard. We take pride in our defense.”
The Bears allow 48 points per game. That’s the fewest points surrendered among the final four teams left in the Division 1 playoffs: Jesuit (54), Rodriguez (58) and Kennedy (57).
Merced has done it without a big guy to protect the rim. The Bears tallest player is Richard at 6-4. Merced essentially starts four guards in Richard, Gilliam, Stewart and Jonathan Chairez along with center Jermon Cook.
What the Bears do have is speed and athleticism, and with all five starters basically the same height, Merced can switch on everything on defense, which helps negate screens.
“Guys have bought in,” Nava said. “We don’t have a big guy so we have to play in front of the post or three-quarters. That leaves us open on the back side. That’s why our weakside guy has to be there. All five guys have to be on the ball when their man has it, and we have two guys on the post. Our guys know that now. I don’t have to tell them where to be.”
While Merced lacks size in the post, they can be long up front with Richard and Stewart (6-1), allowing them to get their hands in the passing lanes, which creates steals and points in transition. Their height can also make it tough on shooters.
There aren’t many guards who can pressure the ball like Gilliam.
“Everyone has to buy in,” Stewart said. “You have to want to play defense.”
The Bears are hoping their defense will lead to two more wins and blue section banner.