In the past, Merced’s Oleachea Bowers may have passed up a shot in a key moment of a game.
The Bears senior didn’t lack the confidence on Friday. Not in the playoffs.
Bowers scored the Bears’ first nine points of the fourth quarter to help No. 16 seed Merced hold off No. 17 Rodriguez’s late charge in a 67-57 win in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division 1 outbracket game at Clemons Court.
“A lot of times I hesitate,” said Bowers, who scored 14 points. “I overthink it. Lately, I’ve just been shooting, shooting, shooting. Tonight most of them were falling.”
It felt that way for a lot of Merced players as the Bears (17-10) jumped out to a big lead in the first half against the Mustangs (16-11). The 67 points were the second most points Merced has scored this season.
The Bears’ reward is a date with top-seeded St. Mary’s (21-5), which is looking for its 15th section title.
The Bears had four players finish in double-figures in scoring, led by Dalonna Jones’ 16 points and 24 rebounds. Lexi Thomson added 13 points and Symone Gilliam scored 11.
It was Thompson who had the hot hand early, hitting two 3-pointers in the final 40 seconds of the first quarter to give the Bears a 19-14 lead.
“We didn’t really know a lot about (Rodriguez),” Jones said. “We didn’t know what offense or defense they ran. We looked at their stats. We knew they didn’t rebound that well so we felt we could win there.”
Jones dominated the paint, especially late in the second quarter.
“I wanted every rebound, every rebound,” Jones said.
After the Mustangs cut the lead to 29-24 with a 3-pointer by Janessa Boling, Jones took over. The 6-foot center scored the final nine points of the first half to give Merced a comfortable 38-24 lead at intermission.
“Prior to those inside baskets at the end of the half we were taking a lot of jumpers,” said Merced coach Rob Pierce. “That’s why the fouls were so one-sided, because we were taking a lot of jumpers. We talked about feeding off that at half. They didn’t have an answer for Dalonna inside.”
The Mustangs hurt themselves by not converting from the free-throw line. Rodriguez made just six of 15 free throws in the first half and shot 13 of 33 for the game.
“Our free throw shooting has been up and down,” Rodriguez coach Lajuan Collier said. “There’s definitely been a couple close games we would have won if we’d knocked down our free throws. Tonight was particularly tough, though. Especially since we’re doing the things we want to do, driving to the basket and drawing fouls. But each one of those misses is a momentum killer.”
Merced extended the lead to as high as 50-32 late in the third quarter, but the Mustangs came out firing in the fourth quarter.
Briana Hayles (17 points) scored four quick points to spark a mini 6-0 run to start the fourth quarter that cut Merced’s lead to 50-40.
Bowers answered with four straight free throws to push the lead back to 14 points after a technical foul was called on a Rodriguez assistant coach.
When Boling knocked down a deep 3 to cut the lead back to 10 points, Bowers sank a 3-pointer from the top of the key to extend Merced’s lead to 57-44 with 5:07 left.
“That’s something we know Oleachea is capable of,” Pierce said. “Her shot has improved so much. We told her if it’s there take it.”
The Mustangs cut Merced’s lead to five points twice in the fourth quarter, but the Bears made 12 of 16 shots from the free-throw line in the final stanza to put the game away.
“They put a lot of pressure on us, but I thought we did a good job of playing defense and taking care of the ball,” Bowers said.
The Bears advance to face a Rams team that has won six straight section titles at various levels.
“It’s win or go home,” Pierce said. “We have nothing to lose. I’m sure they remember us from a couple months ago (at the Clovis West Tournament). We’ve gotten a little better since then. Our girls have to come ready to play and understand it’s still just five on five. They’re high school girls just like us.”