MERCED -- So much has been said and written about Turlock High standout seniors Travis Souza and Eric Wetzel having never defeated Merced during their basketball careers that the obvious reverse point has been partially overlooked.
Simply put, there is a group of five seniors in the Bears' starting lineup that has never lost a varsity game to the Bulldogs.
On Wednesday night, in a game that likely decided the Central California Conference title, the streak of Merced's domination in this series reached 11 games when the Bears dominated the fourth quarter to post a 70-63 victory.
"I feel good about this win, with Turlock being one of the better teams in the league," said Reggie Nelson, the glue of Merced's senior group. "Going undefeated against them for my career is wonderful. It's a great feeling."
The Bears improved to 7-1 in the CCC and 19-4 overall with four games left -- against the lower four teams in the conference. Their best chance to be tripped up will come on Feb. 12 when they meet in-town rival Golden Valley at Merced College.
Turlock fell to 6-2 and 18-5 and has a much tougher schedule ahead that includes games against Golden Valley and Pitman. The Feb. 12 Turlock-Pitman game could decide second place in the CCC.
Nelson had 10 of his 16 points in the fourth quarter, including six during a 13-2 run in the opening three minutes of the quarter as the Bears turned a two-point deficit into a 57-48 lead.
That decisive turnaround came immediately after the Bulldogs successfully slowed the pace of the game to finish the third quarter on an 18-5 run to take the lead entering the final eight minutes.
The difference in the two quarters? At the risk of oversimplification, it came down to speed. The Bears prefer an up-tempo game, while the Bulldogs -- partly because of their shorter bench depth -- work best in a half-court game.
"We slowed down in the third quarter during the time Turlock got back in the game," said Merced coach Marcus Knott. "We were playing at their speed, and the guys did a good job heeding the advice of the coaches and getting the speed of the game back up to our style."
Also during that decisive stretch the Bulldogs starting driving the ball hard to the basket in an effort to break Merced's scoring run. But that proved counterproductive when three straight drives to the basket resulted in offensive fouls, deepening the Bulldogs' scoring drought.
"I believe one of them was an offensive foul, but regardless there was a change in the tide of the game and we didn't play smart," said Turlock coach Doug Cornfoot. "We forced a couple 3s after we got down when there still was time to work for shots. You have to learn from that.
"We can play with Merced, but we just need to learn how to finish them."
Tyrone Bowie led Merced with 18 points, while Brian Cooksey joined Nelson with 16. Souza had a tough shooting game, but still finished with 24 points while Anthony Hubbard had 16 and Ashton Richardson 10.
Turlock hurt its own cause deeply by committing 19 turnovers and converting only 20 of 36 free throws, sealing the reality that the Bulldogs will have to wait another year for a chance to beat Merced.
"I don't think the streak was a factor in the game from the mental side," Knott said. "I don't think Travis or Eric want to win any more against us because they haven't beaten us.
"I know that for our kids, tonight's game was about our goals for the season -- winning another championship and putting ourselves in good position for the playoffs. That's what this was about tonight."
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2300.