TURLOCK – If you weren’t looking at a Merced High roster it would be hard to tell Ulonzo Gilliam is a freshman.
The Bears point guard has quickly acclimated to playing at the varsity level and he played a key role in Merced’s 51-39 win over Pitman on Friday night at Pitman High.
Gilliam is finding his way on the offensive end, but he’s already shown he can be an impact player on the defensive end.
Gilliam’s relentless pressure gave the Pride’s guards fits as Pitman struggled getting the ball across halfcourt at times on Friday night.
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“That was a big part of the game plan,” said Gilliam, who finished with eight points, five steals and three assists. “Coach (Hector) Nava told me (Gurvinder Uppal) was a good all-around player. I wanted to take it in my hands to guard him.”
Gilliam sparked the Bears from the start with a pair of steals in the first 4 minutes, which helped Merced (14-5 overall, 2-0 Central California Conference) jump out to a 10-5 lead and force Pitman to take a timeout.
The Pride (12-5, 1-1) struggled getting into any offensive rhythm in the first half. Merced held Pitman to just four points in the second quarter.
Meanwhile, the Bears finished the first half with a 12-0 run, including a Jonathon Chairez steal and 3-pointer at the buzzer that gave Merced a 31-14 lead at the half.
“Our guys came out really focused and extremely determined to defend,” Nava said. “They’re being unselfish.”
Merced’s ability to switch all screens, pick-and-rolls and dribble handoffs and everything else out on top stifled the Pitman offense.
“When you’ve got a bunch of guards and your center is 6-foot-1, you’ve got to be able to switch everything,” Nava said. “Our guards did a tremendous job. They were relentless.”
Many shooters have had trouble with the depth perception in the Pitman gym over the years. Merced did a good job of not settling for outside shots and attacking the rim.
Gilliam, Travante Richard, Chairez and A.J. Stewart continually worked their way into the lane for shots or to set up a teammate with a shot.
“(Merced) has a nice combination of pressure defense and they’ve also got some guys who can penetrate hard,” said Pitman coach Harvey Marable. “They go to the basket hard. They attack the passing lanes. They are really good in three phases. They have pressure defense, they play transition basketball and they rebound well.”
The Bears left no doubt in the second half as they opened up a 40-17 lead midway through the third quarter. Richard led Merced in scoring with 14 points. Chairez added 11 points.
Jermon Cook played well inside for the Bears with seven tough points.
“Jermon is nonstop motion in there,” Nava said. “He’s moving around and finding a way to get the ball. He missed some easy ones early, but he kept working.”
Gilliam picked up a couple steals that led to baskets in the fourth quarter to help extend the lead to 51-28 midway in the fourth quarter that made Pitman’s 11-0 run to close the game meaningless.
“I’ve got to play with confidence, that’s the biggest thing for me,” Gilliam said. “Mcoach, dad and I have talk about that all the time.”
Merced’s quick start in CCC also has the Bears feeling confident in their ability to stay with the top teams in the conference. Merced has a big game looking at Turlock (2-0 CCC) on Wednesday. Bulldogs coach Doug Cornfoot was able to watch a lot of the Merced-Pitman game on Friday night as Turlock’s game against Buhach Colony was played earlier in the evening because Turlock had a school dance on campus.
“Coach Nava has told us Merced has finished fifth place in the CCC for three straight years,” Gilliam said. “We’re trying to change that. If we want it we can be really good.”
Turlock 80, Buhach Colony 61
TURLOCK Demsen McFaddin led five Bulldogs players in double-figures with 18 points as Turlock improved to 2-0 in the CCC.
Turlock erupted for 28 points in the first quarter to take a 28-20 lead over the Thunder (3-14, 0-2).
John Zaragoza paced the Buhach Colony with 16 points and Kaden Verdin added 14 points.
Ceres 46, Los Banos 44
LOS BANOS Ceres’ Austin Stiles drained what turned out to be the winning 3-pointer with 55 seconds remaining to deny Los Banos its first conference win.
J.T. Barcellos had 18 points for the Tigers (6-9, 0-4 WAC), who had several shots miss in the final few minutes.
Patterson 68, Livingston 62
LIVINGSTON Harman Singh’s game-high 30 points weren’t enough as Patterson pulled away in the fourth quarter by hitting 8 of 10 free throws.
Central Catholic 74, Pacheco 44
LOS BANOS Jose De La Cruz led the Panthers with 19 points, but the Raiders were too much.