Once again the Merced High boys basketball team found itself in a tight game late, and once again the Bears couldn’t finish.
Merced stumbled in the final four minutes as Chavez closed the game with a 13-2 run to end the Bears’ season with a 68-62 win in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division I play-in game on Friday night at Chavez High.
Merced led most of the game and used a 6-0 run midway through the fourth quarter to open up a 60-55 lead. However, the Bears could only manage two points in the final 4 minutes, 35 seconds.
“It’s tough watching the boys work so hard and be so determined,” said Merced coach Hector Nava, whose team finished with a 17-11 record. “They practiced so hard all week and played great for three quarters. We couldn’t execute those last three minutes.”
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Part of the reason the Bears were in a play-in game was their inability to win close games against Turlock and Golden Valley in conference play.
The Bears got the pace they thrive in. The game was played baseline to baseline at warp speed, and Merced was off and running.
With Ulonzo Gilliam (19 points) and A.J. Stewart (18) leading the way, Merced jumped out to a 9-2 lead.
“They really picked up the pace,” said Chavez star Lewis Hayes, who finished with 14 points and seven rebounds. “They got out and ran and knocked down some threes. They hit some big shots.”
The Titans (18-10) had a huge size advantage with a starting front line that feature Hayes (6-foot-5), Anthony Booker (6-9) and Trey Townsend (6-3), but Chavez never tried to turn the game into a half-court affair and dump the ball down low.
Chavez also had to battle through foul trouble with Hayes, Booker and Justice Harris having to spend a lot of time on the bench.
Tommy Williams helped pick up the slack, hitting three of his five 3-pointers in the first half to keep the Titans just three points back at halftime, a 34-31 deficit.
Merced started the third quarter with a quick 6-0 run but was never able to stretch its lead to double digits.
Chavez always answered, and the Titans pulled within 52-50 after three quarters.
“We just started playing,” Hayes said. “We just said, ‘We’re not going out like this.’ We started playing harder and we started rebounding more.”
Gilliam, who drove to the basket repeatedly, hit two free throws to give the Bears a 56-55 lead with 5:14 left. Stewart followed with two quick baskets to extend the lead to 60-55 with 4:35 left.
Then it fell apart for the Bears.
Harris spun away from a defender and hit a shot in the lane for Chavez. Abraham Kabba (14 points) hit a shot, and Harris followed with another bucket to give Chavez a 61-60 lead with 3:06 left.
For Merced, Travis Pazin missed the front end of a one-and-one and Tyler Davis missed a pair of free throws. The Bears were suddenly looking at a 65-60 deficit with 1:26 left.
“In those critical moments when you have a team on the ropes, you have to execute,” Nava said.
Gilliam drove to the basket to cut the lead to 65-62 with 1:10 left, but the Bears went scoreless the rest of the way.
“It’s hard as heck,” Gilliam said. “We didn’t got as far as last year. We have to keep our heads up and prepare for next year. It’s hard to see our seniors play their last game.”
Sun-Star staff writer Shawn Jansen can be reached at (209) 385-2462 or firstname.lastname@example.org.