Jada Johnson tried to fight back the tears. The Merced High senior had one of her best games in the final game of the season.
Johnson wasn’t the only Bears player wiping their eyes after a tough 61-56 loss to No. 5 seed Bradshaw Christian in the quarterfinals of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoffs on Thursday night at Clemons Court.
“It’s really, really tough,” said Johnson, who finished with 13 points and 12 rebounds. “We worked so hard and come so far. It’s tough to see it all go away in a close game like that. It’s a very emotional night for us.”
Merced (22-5) went toe-to-toe with a program that has worked its way up to Division III after winning four consecutive Division IV section championships from 2013-2016.
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The Bears also had the disadvantage of going into the game blind. Merced coach Art Solis was unable to find any video on the Pride (19-11).
It didn’t take long to see Bradshaw Christian was going to be tough despite having just six players in uniform.
Anaya Mejia scored six of her 18 points in the first four minutes of the game to help the Pride jump out to a 13-4 lead. Mejia is listed as a 5-foot-9 guard, but she showed off some polished post moves to score in the paint.
Pride coach Mike Ruble revealed they were able to get a good scouting report on Merced after watching three games on video, but stuck to what they do best.
“This is one of those games where you do what you do,” Ruble said. “You stick to what you know. We saw some tendencies where you want to make a girl go left, but Merced is a heck of a team.”
The Bears battled back as Amaya Ervin and Sierra Smith combined for 10 of Merced’s 13 first-quarter points. Johnson scored five points in the second quarter as Merced trimmed the lead to 30-28 at the half.
It was a close game the rest of the way.
Even when Ervin and Mejia sat with foul trouble for the respective teams, others picked up the slack.
When Mejia picked up her fourth foul early in the third quarter, Cooke Marques took over for the Pride. The junior scored 12 of the Pride’s 18 points in the third quarter to help open up a 48-42 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Marques finished with a game-high 22 points.
“That’s what we expect out of her,” Ruble said. “Cookie is a next-level player if she wants to be. We’re big on her motor. She needs her motor running 24-7, when her motor running like that she’s a beast.”
Solis elected to hold out Ervin with three fouls for the start of the third quarter and Sierra Smith (15 points) helped keep the Bears in the game.
Merced cut a nine-point deficit in the fourth quarter down to 57-56 with a Johnson free throw with 1:01 left in the game.
However, Joasalyn Brown and Marques made four free throws in the final minute to close out the game.
The Bears youth showed late. The Pride had a 59-56 lead with 25 seconds left and the ball. Merced allowed 22 seconds to run off the clock before the Bears were able to foul to stop the clock. By then there was only 2.8 seconds remaining and Bradshaw Christian was able to ice the game at the free throw line.
Ervin finished with a team-high 17 points.
The good news for Merced is 13 of its 15 players suited up on Thursday night are returning next year, including six sophomores.
“You gain a lot of experience playing in a big game like this,” Solis said. “I think it’s huge. We piggy-backed a lot on our sophomores this year. We started three of sophomores the whole year. Our girls should be proud. We’ve come this far with such a young team.”
River Valley 76, Los Banos 33 in Yuba City – The No. 11 Tigers turned the ball over 30 times against the Falcons pressure. Amelia Smith led Los Banos (19-10) with nine points and three assists. Emily Lonetree added eight points.