Art Solis knew coming home from Atwater with a win wouldn’t be easy. The Merced High girls coach spent almost the entire night on his feet, barking at officials, strolling up and down the sideline as the Bears sweated out a 56-51 victory over the Falcons on Thursday night.
Merced had to go deep on its bench with two starters in Amaya Ervin and Kaitlynn Perez picking up four fouls in the first half.
Despite a double-digit lead for the entire second quarter, Solis gambled by keeping Ervin and Perez out there with two and later three fouls.
“I had to, the reason why is the girls I had in there, I was afraid we’d lose momentum,” said Solis, whose team reached the 20-win mark for the first time since 2013. “Kaitlynn helps us out on defense so much and she gets rebounds on offense and defense.
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“Amaya is a game-changer. I really had no choice but to keep them out there.”
The Merced duo wasn’t the only players in foul trouble.
There were 50 fouls called in the game, which led to 60 free throw attempts. Ervin and Perez eventually fouled out in the fourth quarter. Amoni Claiborne and Jazlyn Barron fouled out for Atwater.
Ervin worked her way to the free throw line 12 times herself in the second quarter alone. The junior point guard finished with 17 points to go along with 10 rebounds and four steals.
However, with Ervin and Perez on the bench to start the second half, Atwater (14-12 overall, 6-5 Central California Conference) cut into the Bears’ 11-point lead in the third quarter.
Jazlyn Barron, Lexi Valencia and Kelsey Valencia all drained 3-pointers to pull the Falcons within 38-37 with 2:35 left in the third quarter.
Merced was able to extend the lead to 42-37 heading into the fourth quarter.
Atwater then went ice cold, missing its first nine shots of the fourth quarter as the Bears extended the lead to 51-38 with 3:48 left in the game.
“It was like we didn’t have any energy,” said Atwater coach JR Davis. “A bunch of our girls are sick. It looked like they died on me, then they came back for a little bit.”
Providing a lift for Merced was sophomore Khya Martin, especially when Ervin picked up her fifth foul just eight seconds into the fourth quarter. Martin and fellow sophomore Sarah Rivas were called up from the junior varsity team last week. Martin hit some big free throws in the fourth quarter and finished with eight points.
It was Ervin and teammate Amari Stamps who approached Solis with the idea of calling up the two sophomores.
“Last week Amaya and Amari came to me to talk about it,” Solis said. “It was something I was thinking about with the playoffs coming up. I think they both can help us. I was thinking of bringing them up when the playoffs start, but Amaya and Amari said they can help us right now.
“I think it’s great that the girls took the initiative. Khya was huge for us tonight.”
Sierra Smith added 13 points for the Bears.
Atwater made a couple late runs to cut the Merced lead to 53-47 with 2:36 left and again to 56-51 with 39 seconds left.
Marisa Martinez led the Falcons with 17 points. Kelsey Valencia chipped in with 13 points.
Atwater is now tied with Pitman for the third and final playoff spot going into the final game of the regular season. The Falcons need a win against Buhach Colony and a Pride loss to Turlock on Tuesday to earn a postseason spot
“Now we play the waiting game again,” Davis said. “It’s just like two years ago. We have to handle our business at Buhach and see what happens in Turlock.”
Pitman 58, El Capitan 38 in Turlock – Jessica Smith and Sydney Smith each scored 15 points as the Pride (6-5 CCC) pulled even with Atwater for third place in the CCC standings with one game left in the regular season.
Los Banos 67, Pacheco 27 in Los Banos – Erika Gutierrez scored 16 points and pulled down nine rebounds as the Tigers (18-9, 9-1 Western Athletic Conference) clinched at least a share of the WAC championship. Los Banos’ Emily Lonetree led all scorers with 19 points and teammate Amelia Smith added 14 points.
College Women’s Basketball
UC Merced 74, La Sierra 53 in Merced – Five Bobcats finished scoring in double figures as UC Merced improved to 17-8 overall and 9-2 in the California Pacific Conference. Mia Belvin scored 13 and recorded four steals. Mia Shannon added 12 points, seven rebounds and three blocks for the Bobcats.
La Sierra 73, UC Merced 70 (OT) in Merced – Derek E’denchukwu paced the Bobcats (11-12, 7-4 CPC) with 15 points, nine rebounds and four blocks.