It was everything you could want in a rivalry game – a great crowd, fantastic atmosphere and two teams trying to grind their way to a win.
Ultimately, it was Evan Stillahn’s stellar second half, scoring 18 of his 21 points, to help Golden Valley hold off Merced 62-56 on Wednesday night to keep the Cougars (17-5 overall, 4-1 Central California Conference) tied atop the conference with Turlock.
“I thought it was a great game,” Golden Valley coach Keith Hunter said. “Hector (Nava) is a very good coach. He had a good game plan. Merced is as athletic as any team in our league and they made their free throws.
“It was one of those games where you thought, ‘Oh my God, this is going to slip away.’ ”
Despite leading the entire game, Hunter remained on edge because Merced (15-7, 3-2) kept on coming.
“This was the hardest game I’ve played in,” said Bears star Travante Richard, who led all scorers with 24 points. “It was hard to breathe. It was so hot in here. We couldn’t hear each other on the court. We had to scream on our switches.”
It was a sloppy first half for both teams. Merced turned the ball over seven times in the first half as Ben Fletcher’s hot start propelled GV to a 16-8 lead. Fletcher scored seven of his 11 points in the first quarter.
Merced rallied in the second quarter with the help of an 11-0 run that help cut the Cougars’ lead to just 24-21 at the half.
The Bears took advantage of Golden Valley’s 13 first-half turnovers.
“I know I fell victim to the atmosphere,” Stillahn said. “I wasn’t ready to play in the first half. A lot of us didn’t come out strong. We had a lot of turnovers. We were sloppy with the ball. We knew we didn’t play a good first half. Coach Hunter told us we’re a better team than what we showed.
“Two things that are always written on the board before games are ‘rebounds’ and ‘take care of the ball.’ One of the other things tonight was composure, and we came out with better composure in the second half.”
Stillahn opened the second half by drawing a foul on a 3-point attempt. He sank all three free throws and that seemed to get him on track. He scored 13 points in the third quarter.
Golden Valley led by as many as nine points twice midway through the third quarter, but Merced kept the game close.
Richard relentlessly attacked the basket, which resulted in either layups or trips to the free-throw line. The senior made 8 of 8 from the free throw line in the second half as he scored 21 of his game-high 24 points in the final 16 minutes.
Richard answered a Stillahn 3-pointer with a 28-foot shot as the shot-clock buzzer sounded to cut Golden Valley’s lead to 58-52 with 2:03 left in the game.
Merced freshman Ulonzo Gilliam (12 points) then made one of two free throws to cut the lead to 58-55 with 53 seconds left.
However, Golden Valley’s Christian Carroll (14 points) made a shot in the lane with 20 seconds left to give the Cougars a 60-55 lead and later iced the game with a pair of free throws.
“We made some great decisions in the fourth quarter,” Hunter said. “We got the ball inside and that was probably the difference in the game. That and Stillahn had a great second half.”