From the first day of practice, Merced boys basketball coach Hector Nava knew the Bears had enough talent to win a conference championship.
The question he had was would they be willing to put in the work to make it happen.
The Bears answered that question Tuesday night with a 61-51 win over Golden Valley to earn a share of the Central California Conference championship with the Cougars.
Merced had to win its final five games to claim its first title since 2010.
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“I’ve talked to my guys about how talent wins games, but team work and hard work wins championships,” Nava said. “Tonight was a good example. At different times different players took opportunities to attack the rim.”
The Cougars (21-6 overall, 8-2 CCC) couldn’t keep the Bears out of the paint. Golden Valley struggled with the quicker and more athletic Merced players.
Merced’s Travante Richard, Ulonzo Gilliam and A.J. Stewart slashed their way to the basket at will as the Bears jumped out to an 18-7 lead.
“I thought they dominated the paint,” Golden Valley coach Keith Hunter said. “That’s what we talked about at half. We tried to help more with guys to try to keep them out, but I thought Merced just played a little harder. They got a lot of loose balls. They were the first ones on the floor tonight and they got a ton of offensive rebounds.
“They beat us. You have to give them credit.”
The news got even better after the game for Merced (21-6, 8-2), when the Bears won a coin flip between the two teams to decide which team gets the No. 1 seed from the CCC for the playoffs. As the top seed, Merced should be awarded the best seed from the CCC when the playoff pairings are announced today by the Sac-Joaquin Section.
The Bears players erupted in their locker room when Nava told them they were the CCC’s No. 1 seed.
The coin toss could cost the Cougars a first-round home game.
“That doesn’t matter,” Hunter said. “In the playoffs you’ve got to win or you go home. It doesn’t matter where you play. You’re going to have to beat good teams.”
Golden Valley’s only lead of the game Tuesday night was 2-0. The Bears took control from there with four players finishing in double-figures.
Jonathan Chairez led the way with 17 points, including two first-half 3-pointers that helped Merced take a 32-20 lead into the half.
Richard added 15 points and 11 rebounds. Stewart added 12 points and Gilliam 11.
“By far this was the best win of my high school career,” Richard said. “The goal was to play defense tonight. We knew they had shooters. If we could play defense that was half the problem. We wanted to score in transition. We wanted to use our athletic ability and get in the paint, go to the basket hard.”
Golden Valley started the second half with a quick 5-0 run with the help of a Devon Powell 3-pointer, but Chairez and Richard scored to extend the lead back to 11 points at 36-25.
A Damian Jimenez 3-pointer helped the Cougars pull within 43-34 heading into the fourth quarter.
The Cougars made a run in the fourth quarter. Trailing by 12, Golden Valley used a 12-4 run to cut the lead to 51-47 with 2:40 left in the game.
Sykes scored five points to spark the run and Carroll scored on a drive and drew a foul to cut the lead to four points. Golden Valley was able to take advantage of some costly Merced turnovers and quick shots at the offensive end.
Carroll led the Cougars with 15 points. Powell added 12.
“You have to give credit to coach Hunter, he’s a great coach and you know his team is going to go on a run,” Nava said. “We knew they were coming and they kept coming. My guys kept their poise though.”
The Cougars trailed 53-49 with 2 minutes left, but went 0 for 4 from the free throw line in the final 1:20. Meanwhile, Merced made 8 of 10 free throws down the stretch to pull away.
“I’m extremely proud of all my guys,” Nava said. “They’ve come in from day one and put in the work. It’s nice as a coach to watch them out there playing like a team. I’m proud of what they’ve accomplished.”