Merced has made a habit of second half comebacks during the playoffs.
However, the Bears have never had to erase leads late with two of their best players in foul trouble.
Travante Richard and Ulonzo Gilliam both picked up their fourth fouls late in the third quarter. That helped open the door for Rodriguez to close the quarter with a 13-2 run.
The second-seeded Mustangs (26-2) were able to hold off Merced in the fourth quarter for a 73-68 win in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 1 semifinals at Sleep Train Arena on Wednesday night.
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“It’s tough because you could taste it,” said Merced coach Hector Nava. “I could have been a better coach today, especially in the third and fourth quarter. Our boys played their heart out. I should have stepped up my game.”
Rodriguez will face No. 1 Jesuit in the championship game on Saturday at 8:30 p.m. back at Sleep Train Arena.
For a half, it looked like the Bears (23-7) would be returning to Sacramento.
Led by sophomore A.J. Stewart, Merced came out aggressive in the first half. The Bears attacked the Mustangs pressure and Stewart scored 12 of his 21 points in the first quarter to give the Bears a 21-14 lead.
“The adrenaline helped,” said Stewart, who also led the team with 10 rebounds. “The whole crowd here with everyone supporting us, it was all part of it.”
Merced sent three rooter buses full of 54 students and band members to the game. Others hopped in their own cars as Bears fans easily outnumbered the Rodriguez fans.
The Bears rode the early momentum to a 36-31 lead at the half. Merced made 13 of 26 shots from the floor and held the Mustangs to just 9 of 29 shooting.
The game quickly changed in the third quarter.
The Mustangs scored the first six points of the second half – all from the free-throw line – as they took a 37-36 lead.
Richard, who committed only one foul in the first half, picked up three quick fouls in the third quarter. Gilliam picked up his fourth foul with 2:09 left in the third quarter.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez opened up a 54-46 lead by the end of the third quarter.
“In the third quarter we became too methodical,” Nava said. “We were thinking too much instead of running our action. We worked on a second pressure release against their press and we didn’t pass the ball to our second pressure release. That would have helped against their pressure.”
Without Gilliam and Richard on the floor at the end of the third quarter the driving lanes opened up for Rodriguez.
“I went out in the second half and tried to play defense and be more physical,” said Richard, who scored 10 points. “They weren’t calling as many fouls in the first half. I just tried to play as a hard as I can.”
Trailing by eight points, Nava gambled and played both Gilliam and Richard to start the fourth quarter.
Jermon Cook scored five points and Gilliam knocked down an outside jumper to pull the Bears within 56-53 with 6:03 remaining. But Merced lost Richard when he was whistled for his fifth foul with 5:35 left.
“It was hard to watch the end,” Richard said. “It was so long. It felt when I wasn’t out there we were struggling. I could see our heads go down.”
Merced was able to cut the lead to 63-60 after a pair of free throws from Stewart with 1:31 left, but the Bears couldn’t get the stops or rebounds down the stretch.
The Mustangs iced the game, making all six free throw attempts in the final 31 seconds.
“It was tough,” said Gilliam, who scored a career-high 16 points. “We could have beat this team, in my opinion. We couldn’t dribble and we didn’t do the stuff we practiced.”
Rishod Abraham led Rodriguez with 21 points. Keanu Williams added 17 points.
Merced will now wait to see where it will open up the NorCal Playoffs on Wednesday.
“This is not an easy place to get to,” Nava said. “You can have a perfect team and lose in the first round. During this run our boys displayed to the whole community that they’ve totally bought into Bears basketball.”