Deja Jackson didn’t shy away from the big moment.
The sophomore guard hadn’t put up a shot in 39 minutes Monday night, but with the California Pacific Conference Tournament championship game tied and the final seconds of regulation ticking off the clock, Jackson went into attack mode when the ball swung her way on the wing.
Jackson pump faked from beyond the arc and drove hard toward the basket as soon as her defender came to close her out. The guard pulled up just outside the paint, letting go a one-handed runner. Her shot caught the front of the rim, but Jackson drew a foul with 1.4 seconds left.
Jackson hit her first free throw to put the Bobcats up for good. She missed the second, but time expired before Benedictine could let a desperation heave go and UC Merced captured its third consecutive Cal Pac title 57-56. The win earns the Bobcats (17-11) a third straight trip to Iowa for the NAIA Division II Championship tournament, which begins March 8.
“I knew there was just 10 seconds left, and I knew that we needed to get to the basket and that they had five fouls,” Jackson said. “So just going to the rim hard and trusting that I could knock down the floater or even knock down some free throws was pretty big for me.
“I was like, ‘Oh, no,’ and then I kind of looked and was excited. Then I was like, I need to calm down so I can make some free throws. And then I knocked down at least one, and that was all we needed.”
Jackson’s heroics capped a wild fourth-quarter comeback by UC Merced.
The Bobcats opened the game with a bucket, but Benedictine (17-11) answered with 13 straight points to quickly take a double-digit lead. The Redhawks still led by 13 going to the fourth quarter.
Benedictine coach Brian Hutchins may have inadvertently paved the way for the comeback. The Redhawks successfully used their athleticism edge to build their double-digit lead in transition, but Hutchins started slowing things down in the fourth quarter.
It played right into UCM’s hands as Benedictine struggled to execute in its halfcourt offense.
“It really came down to knuckling down and playing team defense and then for us to take advantage of the inside,” Merced coach Sara-Hopkins Chery said. “We had a size advantage and were able to work the ball into the post and get to the rim.
“Going back into our press defense helped slow them down, and we made a couple of defensive adjustments to make sure some of their players that were getting comfortable were put back under pressure.”
With the defense making stops, two UC Merced seniors led the comeback on the offensive end. Center Brittany Martinez (game-high 17 points, 13 rebounds) and guard Courtney Danna (14 points) worked an effective inside-outside game. The pair combined for 18 of UCM’s fourth-quarter points, whittling the lead until a Martinez putback tied the scored 52-52 with 1:44 to play.
Danna hit two clutch buckets in the final minute to give the Bobcats temporary leads, but the Redhawks answered each time, including an Erica Vasquez (12 points) tying layup with 14 seconds left. Merced called a timeout with 10 seconds left to set up Jackson’s heroics.
“When it’s your last year and you’ve had a horrible game for three quarters, I really had to self-check myself,” said Danna, who scored 12 of her 14 points in the fourth quarter. “My team relies on me to score the ball and take care of the ball. It’s my last championship, and I really took it to heart.
“I had to play hard for my team. It’s all about my team, and I wanted to leave them something, being it’s my last year.”