TURLOCK — Merced High might be the best basketball team in the Central California Conference — the Bears will find out Wednesday when they host co-leader Turlock — but there's little doubt regarding the CCC's top player.
That was near unanimous following a Herculean effort by Pitman's 6-foot-6 Dominic Romeo, but even his performance wasn't enough to beat Merced.
The Bears, parlaying their quickness into steals and transition buckets, used a third-quarter run to jump ahead and then held on for their lives before escaping with a 61-59 victory over the Pride.
It would have been an easy victory for Merced (18-4, 6-1), atop The Bee's Stanislaus District ratings, if not for Romeo.
"He's a beast with the ball down low," said 6-foot forward Tyrone Bowie, often called on for weakside defensive help against Romeo. "You can't stop a guy like that, you just try to contain him."
Romeo had 29 points, including 21 in the final 12 minutes, as the fifth-ranked Pride (14-8, 5-2) made it a tight finish.
He scored 13 of Pitman's 16 points in the fourth quarter, and his nifty bank shot with 1:28 to play pulled Pitman within 61-59.
Pitman had a chance to tie moments later, but 6-6 Amarpreet Randhawa (11 points, seven rebounds) was whistled for his fifth foul on a drive to the hoop.
Merced looked to have it wrapped up when Reggie Nelson hit a 23-footer as the shot clock buzzed, with the official under the basket throwing his hands in the air. The official behind Nelson, though, waved it off and Pitman got the ball with 16 seconds to play.
With 10 seconds left, Romero took a pass inside, pivoted and flipped in a bank shot -- but the Pride had called a timeout before the ball left his hand. When play resumed, Merced swarmed over Romeo.
That forced Joseph Madden to launch an off-target trey and Alex Madden's put-back attempt hit off the rim at the buzzer, and the Bears let out a huge sigh.
"The difference was Merced coming out ready to go in the third quarter. We took a few minutes to get going," said Romeo, who hit 10 of his final 11 shots.
Merced, leading 27-25, established an inside game to open the third quarter. Bowie turned to enter passes into layups, and after Brian Cooksey scored on a similar play, Bowie hit two more shots for 37-30 lead.
The Bears built their lead to 49-39 late in the third quarter, which is when Romeo took over the action.
Despite having the 6-4 Cooksey leaning into him on the backside, and virtually every other interior defender ready to jump in to help, Romeo set himself on the low post and kept attacking the basket.
"They were making great entry passes, and I just had to turn and hit the shot," said Romeo, who frustrated the Bears with his ability to pivot left or right without tipping his hand. "I spend a lot of time working with (assistant coach Sam) Barnes, and I worked with (former Stanislaus State coach) Keith Larsen a lot over the summer working on my moves inside."
The Bears had plenty of motivation, after losing to Pitman 66-53 in the CCC opener. Pitman used a 42-20 second half to win that one, with Derek Nidey hitting career highs with eight 3-pointers and 26 points.
Nidey had two treys and 10 points this time, taking only six shots as the Bears' guards were in his face.
"We were very focused on making sure there was someone in front of him when he got the ball," coach Marcus Knott said. "He won't create a lot of his own shots and he'll pass it off if he can't get an opening."