Rarely do freshmen find themselves in the situation Merced’s Ulonzo Gilliam was in on Wednesday night.
The Bears point guard stepped to the free-throw line with the score tied and 21.8 seconds left on the clock. Gilliam calmly sank two free throws and then helped force a turnover on defense to help No. 6 seed Merced come back from a 19-point deficit to defeat No. 11 Pleasant Grove 56-52 in the first round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 1 playoffs at Clemons Court.
“As a freshman, the pressure was definitely on,” Gilliam said. “There was a lot of pressure. I just tried to stay focused. I know I shoot a flat ball, so I was focusing on staying back and keeping my arm straight.”
Gilliam gave the Bears (22-6) a 54-52 lead, but the Eagles (13-14) still had a chance to tie or win the game on their final possession.
However, Gilliam was able to get a hand on the ball as Pleasant Grove’s Johann Tate dribbled. Tate tried to regain control, but lost the ball out of bounds.
“He was holding the ball and I was able to look at the clock and see there was nine seconds left,” Gilliam said. “I didn’t feel like he was going to be able to get a shot off so I came up on him and jabbed at the ball. I touched the ball and fumbled it.”
Travante Richard then knocked down a pair of free throws to ice the game late as the Bears crowd rushed the floor.
Merced will travel to Elk Grove on Friday to face No. 3 Franklin in the quarterfinals. The Wildcats defeated No. 14 Chavez 62-45.
The Bears had to overcome a big deficit early. Pleasant Grove scored the first 11 points of the game and jumped out to a 25-6 lead early in the second quarter. It appeared the Eagles were going to run the Bears out of their own gym.
“It’s like I told the guys, they didn’t really play that first quarter. They looked like they paid to get in because they were just watching,” Merced coach Hector Nava said. “I think we came out a little nervous. We just had to survive that first quarter.”
The Bears found themselves in the second quarter as they started exchanging baskets. They weren’t intimidated by all the alley-oops being thrown down by Pleasant Grove’s 6-foot-9 center Marquese Chriss (19 points and 10 rebounds).
A.J. Stewart gave Merced a big lift when he beat the halftime buzzer with a 3-pointer from beyond half court that pulled the Bears within 33-23.
“That was huge,” Nava said. “That gives us the momentum going into the locker room. If we don’t get that three maybe our heads are down and it’s my job to get them up, but A.J. did it for me. I could see in that second quarter –about midway through – the kids were realizing we could play with them. We had a little swagger and confidence. Then A.J. knocks down that shot and we know we have a shot.”
The Eagles extended the lead to 14 points twice in the third quarter but couldn’t put the Bears away. Merced cut the deficit to 50-39 after Stewart scored on another buzzer beater. This time he drove the length of the court in the final 6 seconds.
“We kept our composure,” said Stewart, who led the Bears with 16 points. “We didn’t get mad. We ran our offense and the points started to come. Our defense came out strong and we let our seniors put us on their back later.”
Merced finally put together the run it needed by scoring the first eight points of the fourth quarter. Jonathan Chairez made one of his four 3-pointers to start the quarter. Richard made a pair of free throws. Gilliam and Stewart both scored to cut the lead to 50-48 with 4:35 left.
After Chriss knocked down a pair of free throws, Chairez sank another 3 to pull the Bears within 52-51 with 1:54 left.
Richard tied the game with a free throw 51 seconds later and then Gilliam put the Bears ahead with his two free throws.
By the time the final buzzer sounded, Merced outscored Pleasant Grove 15 to 2 in the fourth quarter.
“You talk about determination and you talk about heart,” Nava said. “The five guys out on the court at the end and the guys on the bench. That was great to see as a coach.”