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Nerves of steel: Merced's Gonzalez shakes off butterflies for career night

VACAVILLE -- The butterflies were in Jose Gonzalez's stomach for good reason on Thursday afternoon.

Not only was the Merced junior making his first career start, but it was coming against the defending Division III state champions.

"I'll admit I was nervous at the start of the game," Gonzalez said. "Once I hit my first shot the pregame jitters disappeared."

Gonzalez looked the part of a big-game player.

The 6-foot-2 guard drilled five 3-pointers en route to a game-high 25 points to help lead Merced to a 68-60 win over Sacred Heart Cathedral in the first round of the Gene "Honk" Williams Memorial Tournament at Vacaville High.

"We know what Jose is capable of," said Merced coach Marcus Knott, whose team improved to 5-0. "He's a junior learning what we expect from him as a person and a player.

"He showed it tonight."

What does Knott expect from Gonzalez?

"He wants me to shoot," Gonzalez said. "He keeps reminding me to keep shooting -- even when I miss to keep shooting until I make it."

Gonzalez didn't miss often. His two treys in the first quarter helped Merced open up an early 16-7 lead with a 10-0 run.

Merced set the tone early with its physical play against the San Francisco private school.

Brian Cooksey, Marques Barron and Reggie Nelson held their own on the boards against a bigger opponent.

"All of us have been playing against bigger teams our whole lives," said Cooksey, who finished with 18 points and eight rebounds. "Reggie, Marques, myself, Jose, we all know how to come out and play.

"We just wanted to take it to them."

The game was close throughout.

However, every time Sacred Heart would make a run, Merced had an answer.

Sacred Heart even took the lead a couple times in the second half, only to see Merced string together a couple baskets.

"When a team makes a mini-run, you have to limit the run," Knott said. "When you allow good teams to go on 8-0 or 10-0 runs you're going to get into trouble.

"That's what we try to do to other teams."

After Sacred Heart tied the game at 45-45 at the start of the fourth quarter, Cooksey and Gonzalez led a Merced 9-2 run to open up a 54-47 lead.

Merced made 11 of 12 free throws in the fourth quarter to ice the game.

Merced has made 45 of 52 free throws in the last two games

"It's good to see our guys step up and make those shots," Knott said. "Especially at the end of the game"

Merced will play the winner of the Will C. Wood-Modesto game tonight at 6:30 in the semifinals.

At Vacaville

Sacred Heart 13 11 19 17 -- 60

Merced 18 12 15 23 -- 68

SACRED HEART -- Taylor Johns 13, Zach Tapel 2, Karl Reyes 10, Martin Folan 9, Jamal Ford 9, Vince Bastidas 9, Athony Silvestri 4. Totals: 22 10-19 60.

MERCED -- Luis Gonzalez 25, Reggie Nelson 15, Brian Cooksey 18, Tyrone Bowie 8, Marques Barron 2. Totals: 22 20-23 68.

3-pointers: SH 4 (Folan 3, Reyes 1), Merced 6 (Gonzalez 5, Nelson 1); Team Fouls: SH 20, Merced 16; Fouled Out -- None.

Records: Sacred Heart Cathedral 0-2; Merced 5-0.