This season has been a series of gut-wrenching losses for Merced. After a second consecutive double-overtime loss last week, Bears coach Hector Nava joked this season has taken three years off his life.
So you can imagine how the Merced players felt on Wednesday night when they didn’t let one slip away late. To be able to look up at the scoreboard after the four-minute overtime period and see: Merced 75, Golden Valley 72.
After Isaiah Daniel’s potential game-tying 3-pointer clanked off the rim, the Merced student section rushed the court to celebrate the Bears win.
“It feels amazing,” said Merced senior Jeremy Redwine, who finished with 23 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks. “I think our previous experience helped us a lot tonight. Coach Nava has talked about staying composed and poised. We trusted each other out there and came out on top.”
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The Bears (15-12, 5-7 Central California Conference have had plenty of late, close-game situations. All seven of Merced’s losses in CCC play have come by seven points or less.
And they’ve come in a variety of ways.
There was losing a double-digit lead at Pitman. Then losing at home against Pitman after jumping out to a 22-point lead.
There was the last-second, half-court shot by Saul Avitia in the loss to Atwater.
There was the double-overtime losses to El Capitan and Turlock. The Bears blew a 15-point lead in the second half to the Gauchos and were up five points against Turlock in the first overtime period.
There was also the first game against Golden Valley when the Bears couldn’t protect a four-point lead with 20 seconds left on the clock.
“We beat ourselves in a lot of those games,” Redwine said. “We were self-destructive. We didn’t keep our composure late in games. Tonight we did and we kept fighting.”
The Bears erased a 14-point deficit in the third quarter with the help of a 10-0 run. It was Dhameer Warren leading the charge. The Merced junior showed a glimpse of the player he could be, scoring on the offensive end and using his length and athletic ability on the defensive end.
Warren scored 11 of his game-high 24 points in the third quarter that saw Merced come all the way back from a 42-28 deficit to pull within 48-46 heading into the fourth quarter.
“I thought we played a great first half,” said Golden Valley coach Keith Hunter, whose team dropped to 18-9 overall and 7-5 in the CCC. “We moved the ball and took good shots. I thought we were terrible in the third quarter. (Merced) came out with more energy than us. I thought our concentration was bad.”
Merced surged in front in the fourth quarter and opened up a 56-50 lead after Adam Cardoso (12 points) hit one of his four 3-pointers on the night with 4:14 remaining in regulation.
Devin Martinez pulled GV even at 59-59 with a 3-pointer. The Cougars would take a 63-60 lead with 1:04 left after Etrell Bowers (17 points) scored on a putback.
Cardoso answered with another 3-pointer for Merced to tie the game at 63-63 with 47 seconds left and the game eventually went to overtime.
Redwine scored six points in overtime as the Bears built a 70-65 lead as Golden Valley’s top two scorers Cyrus Allen (14 points) and Bowers fouled out.
Anthony Robinson hit a pair of free throws with 8 seconds left to extend the Merced lead to 75-72. The Cougars rushed the ball up the court, but weren’t able to get a good look as Daniel misfired on a three-point attempt just before the buzzer sounded.
The Cougars had already clinched a playoff spot with a third-place finish in the CCC.
Merced can only hope the win will propel them into an at-large berth. The Bears entered the final game ranked 14th in Division III in the Sac-Joaquin Section in MaxPreps rankings. Teams who don’t earn an automatic berth from conference play can earn an at-large berth with a top 12 ranking in their division.
“All we can do now is hope the basketball gods are looking out for us,” Nava said. “We’ll have practice tomorrow and at 4 o’clock we’ll watch to see if we made the playoffs.”